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from their peers than from their faculty.
The ethos at Harvard catered to intellectualism and further discour-
aged me from any inclination toward the practice of medicine. Re-
search was portrayed as the most esteemed of medical endeavors, a
state of grace to which all should aspire (much to the annoyance of
many of my classmates, who understandably had thought that medical
school was mainly about becoming a doctor). So I sought out research
experience in a neurobiology laboratory, but was rebuffed because of
Accidental Scientist 45
my inexperience. I became ambivalent about continuing in medical
school, yet at a loss for an alternative.
Finding Research
During my second year in medical school, two pathologists rescued
me from my dilemma. Benjamin Castleman offered me a year of inde-
pendent study in his department at Massachusetts General Hospital,
and Edgar Taft of that department took me into his research labora-
tory. There was little hope that I could do any substantive investiga-
tions that year, and I did not. But I became a practiced pathologist,
which gave me an immense academic advantage in the ensuing years
of medical school. I found the leisure to marry. And I was riotously
free to read and think, which led me to a new passion: molecular biol-
ogy, which was then just beginning its triumphant sweep through
medical science. I have never had such autonomy before or since, and I
credit the autonomy for making that year the most important in my
life (there was also my marriage, of course).
I began to teach myself what I might need to know to become a sci-
entist. I did this mainly by making regular visits to the premier medi-
cal bookstore in Boston and bringing home haphazard assortments of
books, which I read according to whim. Kathryn and I were living on
her slender income as a public school teacher because Harvard had
cancelled my scholarship when it learned of our marriage spousal
income, however scant, was regarded as a due substitute for Harvard s
benefaction; the university thought it sufficient that I retain the title of
National Medical Scholar, without the stipend. But once within the
confines of that bookstore, I became oblivious to budget. I had initi-
ated a mania for books that has never slackened, and a selective disre-
gard for frugality that has served my mania well. I still have all of the
books acquired in that year. Few are now worth the paper on which
they are printed, but they stand on my shelves as mementos of a turn-
ing point in my life.
Self-instruction follows an honorable tradition, even when as un-
disciplined as my own. I once heard Freeman Dyson remark that he
46 Accidental Scientist
[To view this image, refer to
the print version of this title.]
Laboratory Still Life No. 4 by Tony Cragg, 1988. (Reproduced by permission of Crown
Point Press.)
had learned much more about science as a child from reading books
and visiting museums, than from formal instruction.5 Granted, this
might not work for others: Dyson has never for a moment been a mere
mortal. Indeed, looking back over my own career and its failures, I
cannot help but wonder whether I have suffered unduly from being an
autodidact in almost everything that I tried to master, from research to
fly fishing. Might formal training have made me better? I believe I
know the answer, and it is disquieting.
Whatever its limitations, my year of autonomy set my course to-
ward research. And I was gradually becoming shrewd. I recognized
that molecular biology had advanced far beyond my existing capabili-
Accidental Scientist 47
ties, that its inner sanctum was not accessible to one so unsophisti-
cated as myself, that I would have to find an outer chamber in which to
pursue my passion. I found animal viruses, those tiniest of creatures
that can wreak such havoc with human health the annoyance of the
common cold, the global mortality of influenza, the horror of small-
pox, the modern plague of AIDS.
Animal viruses came to my attention through an elective course
taken when I returned to my third year of medical school. Elmer
Pfefferkorn, at the time an unsung instructor who taught the course,
took me into his miniscule laboratory and put me to work. Elmer soon
rose to great distinction in his field and eventually became chairman
of the Department of Microbiology at the Dartmouth School of Medi-
cine. I readily concede that my work with Elmer contributed nothing
to either of those achievements. From the course, I learned that animal
viruses were ripe for study with the tools of molecular biology, yet still
accessible to the likes of me. From Elmer, I learned the exhilaration of
research, the practice of rigor, and the art of disappointment.
I began my work with Elmer in odd hours snatched from the days
and nights of my formal curriculum. But an enlightened dean of stu-
dents gave me a larger opportunity when he approved my outrageous
proposal to ignore the curriculum of my final year in medical school
so that I could spend most of my time in the research laboratory. The
only requirement was that I explain myself to the chairs of the various
departments whose offerings I would be ignoring. That made for some
interesting interviews. But no one blocked my way. (I realize now that
the dean had, to a modest extent, passed the buck. But no matter: it
worked for me.)
In the end, I completed only one of the eight or so formal courses
then required of fourth-year students. Flexibility of this sort in the af-
fairs of a medical school is rare, even now, in this allegedly more lib-
eral age. In most states (California included), it would be a statutory
impossibility because of legislative requirements that constrain the
medical curriculum in ways that defy reason and wisdom. It has been
more than thirty years since Christopher Jencks and David Riesman
concluded that  there may be almost no causal relationship between
learning what is taught in professional school and doing well as a pro-
48 Accidental Scientist
fessional practitioner. 6 This is an insight that I can affirm, but that
medical education in the main continues to ignore.
My work with Elmer was sheer joy, but it produced nothing of sub-
stance. I chose not to submit a thesis based on my unsuccessful experi-
ments, a decision that was later cited to me as the reason I had gradu-
ated cum laude rather than magna cum laude (an obvious wound, else [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]


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