Medical School Memories


In 1980 I was in the last year of medical school and getting ready to embark on my career as a doctor. The routine was to meet with an important faculty member in the Dean’s office, discuss the medical school experience, and talk about plans for the future. A summary would be placed in my permanent file, memorialized in a Dean’s Letter that would follow me to places I applied for a postgraduate job.
I felt lucky, because I was assigned to Dr. A, a renowned professor who gained notoriety with research on the cause of cancer. He taught one of my second-year courses, and I always sat in the front row during his lectures.

We met in a plush room in the administrative suite. He asked about the highlights of the past three and a half years. I enthusiastically told him how I brought my sketchbook into anatomy lab to draw cadavers in various phases of dissection. I spoke about my elective in photomicroscopy, and how beautiful the patterns that biologic tissues made under high magnification. I recapped my career with the school newspaper, drawing editorial cartoons and illustrations.

Dr. A was looking at the ceiling and seemed far away. He turned to me and leaned across the table. “Bah!” he spat, with a dismissive flourish of his hand, “Nobody cares about that HOO-RAH stuff!”

Here was a professor who I idolized, but in a flash I realized that an artistic illiterate was about to write my Dean’s Letter. I scrambled to reformulate my thoughts about my accomplishments in medical school and delivered the goods as best I could.

After this experience I reflected on the physician-poets, writers and artists that I had read about. People like Andreas Vesalius, who illustrated the world’s first great anatomy text in 1542, or Eliot Porter, who photographed Glen Canyon before it was flooded by Lake Mead and whose work was published by the Sierra Club. I thought about AJ Cronin, whose autobiographical work entitled Adventures in Two Worlds explored his journey from a country doctor to a successful novelist. I recalled poetry by William Carlos Williams who became a famous poet scribbling verse on prescription pads between patients in his busy medical practice in Rutherford, New Jersey. I thought about Anton Chekhov, the Russian master of the short story who paid his medical school tuition with his writing. All this was “HOO-RAH Stuff” according to Dr. A.

I looked ahead to my medical residency, calculating how long it would take to repay my medical school debt and buy some good artist materials.  When my internship started I took my first paycheck and drove to New York City where I bought an oak drafting table at Pearl Paint on Canal Street that I still use today. But the economic pressure and time-demands of a medical career pushed my dreams of combining art and medicine far into the future.

I am heartened that many American medical schools today have broadened their curriculum to include humanistic topics that offset the barrage of science and technology that is fed to their students.

Dr. A. has since passed on. I apologize, Dr. A, that I referred to you as an artistic illiterate. After all, you did contribute to our knowledge of cancer and performed a great service to public health. So after three decades of storage, in your honor I publish samples from my medical school sketchbooks in the slideshow above.

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Comments(8)

  • June 6, 2012, 2:11 pm  Reply

    I knew of your photographic and photoessay accomplishments Jeffrey, but never knew you had such talent in sketching. I too had a few “giants” teaching me how be a physician and sadly they too have passed. Great work and congratulations. Your fellow “fellow” from 1985, Joel

  • robert kennedy
    June 5, 2012, 7:28 am  Reply

    How Medicine needs more practitioners who are alive to more than Medicine!
    You are a Renaissance man.

  • Bobbi Ercoline
    June 4, 2012, 7:34 pm  Reply

    How fortunate for us, your observers, that you persisted with your first love even after you attained your medical degree. Your art is such a gift to us all.

  • Ron Becker
    June 4, 2012, 3:21 pm  Reply

    Jeff, I am amazed and impressed at the quality of your work – only because you never mentioned you were an artist, as well as being a gifted photographer. I would guess your appreciation for and involvement in the visual arts adds another dimension of sensitivity and insight that affects the therapeutic healing you bring to your clients. I am sure your creative gifts enhance your medical services in known and unknown ways. Thank you for sharing another aspect of your gifts and a reflection on some experiences in medical school.

  • Clifford Feiner
    June 4, 2012, 12:40 pm  Reply

    With all the current talk about trying to get more “well rounded” people into medical school, you were truly years ahead of your time. Am not at all surprised to learn that you went to Pearl Paint with your first paycheck!

  • Neil Moskowitz
    June 4, 2012, 12:02 pm  Reply

    Great work and memories Jeff. I knew you were a great photographer but learning more about your artistic side as well. Very nice sketches here!

  • June 4, 2012, 11:54 am  Reply

    Wow Jeff, didn’t know you were an artist as well…the humanistic side of life seems to be lacking these days..my work is qualitative in nature and often discounted in favor of anything quantitative (profit-/number-centered), so I get you on this…K

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Dr. Jeffrey M. Levine has authored numerous articles on topics related to healthcare of the elderly. These include medical history, prevention and treatment of chronic wounds such as pressure ulcers, elder neglect and abuse, and physical restraints. He has also edited a book on legal and regulatory aspects of nursing homes.