Raymond Greenberg’s new biography of the late Donald Seldin has a great subtitle. It could also have been Never at Rest had not Richard Westfall preopted the title for his definitive biography of Isaac Newton. Constant purposeful activity combined with a blazing intellect was the dominant characteristic of Seldin’s long and incredibly productive life.
A note on the author. Greenberg had a distinguished career in academic medicine. He was the president of Medical University of South Carolina and then vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas System. He has written several books and more than 150 scientific papers. He had not many interactions with Dr Seldin and was at first reluctant to accept the invitation of Dan Podolsky to write Seldin’s biography. Podalsky is the president of UT’s Southwestern Medical Center where Seldin spent more than 67 years on the faculty – 36 as chairman of the department of internal medicine. He decided to write the book because he thought as someone who had minimal interactions with Seldin he could bring a fresh and balanced account of one of the most remarkable men and careers in 20th century American life. He was right. The result is a compelling description of both the man and the impact he had on medicine.
Born to immigrant parents in 1920, he was raised and educated in Brooklyn. After attending Seth Low Junior High School as part of an accelerated program for gifted students, he went to James Madison High School where he ran track and played basketball. The current mayor of the city wishes to abolish this ‘Special Progress’ pathway as somehow being unfair. No matter that thousands of New York students like Seldin have gone on to lives of exceptional merit.
A child of the depression, he came from an unhappy family. His father was a dentist, while his intelligent mother had little formal education. As a teenager he worked a series of jobs necessary to maintain sustenance during hard times. These included, delivery boy, usher, dance instructor, magazine salesman, and bellhop. On his own he developed the wide palette of interests that remained with him throughout his life. A bonafide polymath he came to know a lot about almost everything.
At age 16 he matriculated at New York University. While his interest in literature, art, and music was gratified at NYU, he decided that he needed a profession that would provide a living. He applied to medical school and was accepted at Yale. In New Haven he met the physician-scientist who would shape his medical career – John Peters.
Greenberg gives a vivid account of Peter’s life. Peters was a pioneer in the application of chemistry to clinical medicine. With the chemist Donald Van Slyke he authored the two volumes of Quantitative Clinical Chemistry that became a medical classic. Peters adherence to liberal causes caught the attention the Loyalty Review Board. He was repeatedly accused of disloyalty to his country. These unfounded accusations took a severe toll on Peters. He suffered a heart attack and died in 1955 age 67. While his metabolic section was world renowned, he never became chairman of Yale’s department of internal medicine, in large part because of the false disloyalty charges.
Seldin repeatedly acknowledged his professional debt to Peters, who not only was a rigorous clinical investigator, but who also trained many physician investigators who became leaders of American medicine – foremost among them was Seldin who graduated from Yale first in his class in 1943. Peters demanded that medical research never be separated from clinical medicine. This was the principle that animated Seldin’s career as a medical educator and scientist.
His medical education was accelerated by the US Army’s need for doctors to care for the casualties and illnesses resulting from World War II. Likewise, internship and residency were compressed to 27 months. He had been in the Army for much of his time at Yale, but was not activated until until late in 1945.
The Army sent him to Germany. Two events were noteworthy about this posting. He was able to indulge a lifelong passion for the art and culture of that continent. He also served as an expert witness during the trial of a Nazi doctor accused of war-crimes. Seldin often described his testimony in a way that suggested that the accused, Dr Rudolf Brachtel, was convicted. Using new information obtained by a Seldin trainee and then a close friend, Michael Emmett, Greenberg shows that Brachtel was acquitted, as were many ex-Nazis because of war crime fatigue and the onset of the cold war. Brachtel resumed medical practice until his death four decades later. Seldin likely never knew the verdict in the trial. But the experience he faced dealing with the perversion of medicine stayed with him for the rest of his life.
After his discharge from the Army he returned to Yale to work under his mentor Dr Peters. Late in 1950, he was recruited to the faculty of internal medicine at Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. He accepted the job without visiting Dallas or the school. Dr Peters advised against taking the job, telling Seldin that there was no respect for the intellect in that part of the country. The likely reason he took the job was that the path to advancement at Yale was long, while it certainly was much shorter at a new school. So against the advice of the man whom Seldin admired more than any other, he arrived in Dallas in January of 1951.
The situation in which he found himself was a mess that only got worse. The school was housed in dilapidated wooden huts. Within eight months the small internal medicine faculty had decamped for more verdant fields leaving Seldin as the sole remaining physician. He decided to return to Yale whereupon he was offered and accepted the chairmanship of the department, a post he was to hold for the next 36 years. That he was picked for the job is unsurprising as there was no one else left. He was the department’s sole faculty member.
Greenberg describes with panache the miracle Seldin wrought over the ensuing decades, taking Southwestern from an invisible medical school to one of the world’s great medical centers; one that is home to Nobel Prize winners and a faculty full of medical and scientific superstars. How did he do it?
Read the book for the full details, but basically, he recruited world class talent from his students. “Our students aren’t any smarter than than those of any other schools,” he often declaimed. Leaving unsaid that he was better at recognizing and nurturing nascent talent than anyone else.
Consider one such student – Floyd Rector. After graduating from Texas Tech in 1950, then a college rather than the large university it is today, he matriculated at Southwestern. During Rector’s first or second year he encountered Seldin in the library. Seldin asked him if he knew where he could find a book that had an equation he needed. Floyd didn’t know, but said it shouldn’t be too hard to derive it and proceeded to do so. Seldin returned home to tell his wife that he had come across the craziest medical student. He meant really bright. The following day he called Floyd into his office and mapped out the next 20 years of his career. Long before the two decades expired Rector had become the best renal physiologist in the world. When the 20 years were up he moved to the University of California in San Francisco as chief of nephrology. He subsequently chaired the school’s department of internal medicine.
This pattern of career development characterized Seldin’s handling of the gifted students he encountered and developed into world renowned leaders in their respective fields. The most spectacular example of this process was Joseph Goldstein who after an extensive postgraduate training regimen returned to Southwestern with his scientific partner Michael Brown. Both shared the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1985.
Not all of Seldin’s stars were former students. Two New Yorkers joined the faculty in the 50s. Roger Unger was recruited Seldin’s department in 1952. He become one of the world’s experts on diabetes, especially on the role of glucagon on the pathophysiology of the disease. He continued to work at the school until his mid nineties. He died in August of this year. Among his numerous honors was election to the National Academy of Sciences.
Morris Ziff, like Seldin was a native of Brooklyn and went to NYU. He held a doctorate in chemistry as well as an MD. Seven years older than Seldin, he came to Dallas in 1958 where he developed one of the world’s outstanding rheumatology divisions. Surprisingly, neither is mentioned in Greenberg’s book. So wide was the circle of Seldin’s colleagues, students, and associates that Greenberg realized that he had to stop interviewing them or he would never have time to write the book. It was inevitable that a few key players would be missed.
Much of the biography depicts the extraordinary depth and reach of its protagonist’s extra-medical interests and knowledge. From the poetry of Yeats, to the architecture of the Renaissance, to the music of Beethoven, and even to the performance of the Dallas Cowboys – Seldin had a strong opinion based on real insights and understanding. After the Dallas Cowboys lost the NFL championship game on December 31, 1967 to the Green Bay Packers in the famous Ice Bowl (or infamous if you were a Cowboy fan, as was Seldin), his annual New Years Eve party was full of gloom. His youngest daughter told many of the guests that the Cowboys would have won the game, “If Coach Landry had only listened to my daddy.”
Seldin trained so many physicians who in turn trained more physicians, und so weiter, that the medical schools, laboratories, clinics, and hospitals the world over are filled with his professional progeny. There is a Seldin school of medicine throughout the world. The reach of the man is global. He was the ultimate right man in the right place at the right time. Greenberg has captured the genius and charisma that allowed him to achieve what seems, even 70 years after his start from zero, impossible, or miraculous.
Greenberg’s technique was to interview about 40 people who had close contact with Seldin over the course of his long, long, long career. They were virtually unanimous in their wonder and praise of his erudition, energy, and dynamic charm. Of course, there were those who found his heat too much to bear. They didn’t make it into the bio.
Seldin was not an easy taskmaster. if you couldn’t perform to his very high standard he ignored you. If he thought you had ability and promise he pushed harder. To satisfy him you had to up your game. Doing so was its own reward.
Who is the book for? Certainly anyone interested in medicine, particularly medical education and research. It’s a portrait of one of the unique Americans of the last century making it a compelling read for anyone interested in individual brilliance and accomplishment. At little more than 200 pages, Greenberg has drafted an indelible sketch of the most important academic physician since William Osler. Highly recommended. So long was Seldin’s life and career that October 24 of this year is the 100th anniversary of his birth.