Wisdom of the years: pre-med students honor their alumni mentors

On Friday night the Harrison Morgan Brown Pre-Medical Society sponsored a reception and dinner at the Faculty House to honor local and alumni physicians and Williams faculty who have invested their time in teaching and advising students who aspire to careers in medicine and the health sciences.

Pre-medical students today face a changing field full of uncertainties. From HMOs to health care legislation, medicine is far different from what pre-med students faced 50, 20, or even 10 years ago. For guidance and advice, Williams students are fortunate to have the support of local and alumni physicians and faculty members.

“At Williams we are extremely fortunate to have a group of physicians who are willing to take such an active role in our pre-medical education,” Adam Sischy ’02 said.

“I thought the evening was a success,” Sarah Philipp ’02 said. “It was really interesting to hear from the speakers how things have changed over the years but that there are still so many similarities.”

Some of those honored have participated in the Winter Study Medical Apprenticeship program and the Asklepian Aura lecture series. The continuity of the liberal arts curriculum and the pre-Health Care track at Williams is fostered by such programs which supplement the typical science oriented pre-med education with dialogue on the social and ethical implications of work in the health sciences.

Coming from a wide range of eras, the Williams alumni were able to share their memories of pre-med life at Williams during their years here and perspectives on how medicine and the experience of pre-med students has changed over time.

Wayne Wilkins ’41, a renowned general and thoracic surgeon and head of the emergency department at Massachusetts General Hospital, brought insights gained from his pre-World War II pre-med experience and advice on preparation for a career in medicine today.

Although he was a chemistry major at Williams, Wilkins encouraged pre-med students to take a range of courses in the liberal arts because they provide a broadening experience important to the practice of clinical medicine. He also emphasized that “a good student from a less than elite [medical] school can make a good doctor,” and that going to medical school long after graduating from college is a viable option today. Finally, Wilkins stressed that the reward of being a doctor does not lie in status or income but in “the direct dealing with and appreciation of . . . patients.”

Arthur Ellison ’47, a distinguished orthopedic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital and a Williams College team physician for 30 years, presented the perspective of a pre-med student during World War II. He recalled that there were only 100 civilians on campus and the V5 marching to class every morning was as good as an alarm clock. Ellison also underscored that “the days when you have to be a chemistry or biology major are over. Any major is okay if you can think effectively.”

Skip Durning ’72, a local internist, spoke about the “pace of change in a changing society” as it related to Williams pre-med students in the baby-boom generation. He described the impact of a politically dynamic time on students, who, at the time, could avoid being sent to Vietnam by getting a medical deferment.

Durning focused on the importance of human to human interaction in medicine. He noted that while Harvard is an excellent school where the top student will, in all likelihood, matriculate, “every library has more books than you will ever read, and you don’t take care of damaged hearts or injured hips, you take care of people.”

Richard Zuflacht ’75, a gastroenterologist, spoke about the transition between the idealism of the ’60’s and disillusionment of the ’70’s and compared it to the transition period in which medicine finds itself presently. He said that 10 to 15 years ago “the doctor was the patient’s advocate and cost wasn’t a factor,” but now, “big business has moved in and is the employer of 40 to 50 percent of physicians.” Although medicine is in flux, he feels it is “still a special privilege to be a physician today.”

Stephen St. Claire ’80, a urologist, told the current students “the Williams years should be a time to expand as much as you can,” and encouraged them to take advantage of the liberal arts education offered here. While “medicine is more frustrating than it used to be,” he said it is still, “just a great job” which can provide great fulfillment.

The advice and encouragement of those honored at the gathering was met with gratitude and interest from students who are considering careers in medicine and the health sciences.

“You can’t learn enough from them,” Julie Zlotnick ’99 said. “The road to becoming a physician is so long and arduous that it’s nice to be reminded that all the hard work is worth it in the end.”