Rochester Medicine

A Noble Guide

Jul. 30, 2014

Personal recollections of Nobel laureate George Hoyt Whipple, M.D. (1878 – 1976), show the founding dean of Rochester’s School of Medicine and Dentistry was a valued mentor.

Gerald “Jerry” E. Gibbons (MD ’57) thought he was in trouble.   It was his first year of medical school, and he was being summoned to George H. Whipple’s office.  Whipple, founding dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry, was a common sight in the hallways.  However, Gibbons, like many of his classmates, usually kept a respectful and awe-filled distance from the Nobel Prize-winning giant of pathology.  It was enough to walk in his shadow; being hauled in for a private meeting was cause for trepidation.

But Whipple had something he wanted to discuss with young Jerry, who was among the last students handpicked by the dean for admission to Rochester.  Gibbons was an outdoorsman who grew up in the farmlands of eastern Washington’s Columbia River basin.  Therefore, he possessed important knowledge the Nobel laureate lacked.Whipple portrait

“Dr. Whipple and (Kodak founder) George Eastman had traveled to Mount Rainier together, but he wanted to know what the hunting and fishing are like in eastern Washington.  We talked about pheasants, and he was interested in the Chinese pheasant we have here,” Gibbons laughs.  “His son was working at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation nearby.  I wondered if that was one of the reasons he selected me for the class.”

Now retired from vascular surgery and living in an architectural gem overlooking Washington’s Wenatchee River valley, Gibbons vividly recalls the first time Whipple stood before his entire class, more than a half century ago.  He told the bright-eyed students they had been painstakingly chosen, so they were all capable of graduating and becoming doctors.  Meanwhile, Gibbons heard from friends at other medical schools who were being told “look right, look left, one of you will not be here at the end of the year.”

“Rochester was different,” Gibbons says with affection. 

However, during his second year, Gibbons’ mother secretly wrote to Whipple expressing concern over her son’s well-being.  In addition to studying medicine, he was working a late shift doing lab work at a local hospital.

“I was frazzled, I guess, and somehow my mother got word,” Gibbons says.

Without mentioning the letter, Whipple called Gibbons and asked how he was doing.  He then convinced the young man to quit his job so it would not interfere with his sleep and studies.  It was decades before Gibbons knew the full story.  While going through his mother’s belongings, he found Whipple’s response to her:

I always advise them (students) not to do outside work, as their time is too valuable.  They can never buy it back and they are selling their priceless time for a song…I urged the boy to give up his job.

Whipple’s genuine interest and magnanimous counsel often came as a surprise to his beneficiaries.  In 1973, after winning the Distinguished Service Award from the American Medical Association, Whipple received a handwritten, congratulatory letter from Patricia Mensel Perkins (MD ’48).  Perkins, who died last year, expressed gratitude for his contributions to her professional education:

…also for your understanding when I came to you in fear and trembling in 1944 with the news that I was pregnant.  I expected that would be the end of my medical career.  Instead, you asked me how I felt and helped me work out a flexible schedule so that I graduated with the Class of 1948.

While raising her family, Perkins became a school physician and later worked in research at Strong Memorial Hospital.  However, despite the support Perkins received, Whipple was unwilling to accept married interns in his pathology lab.  Responding to a colleague asking for his thoughts on the subject, Whipple wrote:

It is impossible for the young married man to give his entire attention to his professional training.  If he did, his wife would be neglected, and I wouldn’t advise that.

Albert Chang (MD ’68) admits he was looking for a similarly strong opinion when he was a first-year student, confused about the direction he should go.  He had summoned enough courage to stop by Whipple’s office for help.

“In my mind, I wanted to ask him ‘what kind of doctor should I be?’” Chang remembers.  “But I decided to be more circumspect.”

Chang paid tribute to Whipple’s remarkable career as a practitioner, educator, researcher, and administrator, and then asked which role gave him the greatest personal satisfaction and made the most significant contribution.  He says Whipple’s eyes twinkled as he proceeded to tell Chang the joys of each pursuit.

“At that moment, I didn’t realize what was happening, but he counseled me well. I think it was his way of making me make the choice,” reflects Chang, who retired from teaching in 2007 and is now a pediatric consultant at a California juvenile facility.

At other times, Whipple was a more direct interventionist in the careers of his protégés.  In 1954, Cornell University Medical College (now Weill Cornell Medical College) was hoping to recruit SMD junior faculty member Victor M. Emmel (MD ’47) to become head of Anatomy. Whipple quickly penned his thoughts to the professor trying to woo Emmel away:

He would be a real loss to this school and I have a pious hope that we may be able to hold him because he is a man like myself who loves the country and to him New York City does not appear under the heading of paradise.  You understand what I mean.

Records suggest Emmel remained in heavenly Rochester, where he passed away in 1984.

While Chang half-jokingly refers to Whipple as a “superhuman,” the dean was not infallible.  Whipple was a product of his generation.  His counsel was based, in part, on his conservative New England upbringing and the rolling prejudices of his time. 

Like many physicians and academic medical center administrators of his generation, Whipple felt threatened by the increasing number of highly intelligent, well-trained, and ambitious Jews who, post-World War I, were emerging from the top medical schools and biomedical science programs. Whipple also held then-typical prejudices against Italians and Catholics, but he did not fully exclude any of these groups from enrolling or teaching at SMD.  At the time, there was no significant controversy.

In a 1959 autobiographical sketch, Whipple predicted he would be most remembered – not for winning the Nobel Prize – but for teaching.  Others agreed. The late George P. Berry, M.D., (chair of Bacteriology at SMD before becoming dean of Harvard Medical School) was called upon to present the 1943 Civic Medal of Rochester to Whipple.  In his remarks, Berry emphasized the important role Whipple played in the lives of those who followed:

With the modesty of all great men, he has ever devoted himself to guiding the steps of aspiring youth.