Enduring Virtues

by William N. Kelley

The University Commencement this year brought, among others, two physicians to campus for honorary degrees. One is a Penn Med graduate: Dr. Louis Sokoloff, Class of 1946. As many of you know, he has virtually founded cerebral metabolism as an area of study. As his degree citation stated: "You have given neuroscience a new landscape of discovery. A visionary explorer of the three-pound universe we call the brain, you have charted the chemical changes that provide the brain with energy and mapped their relation to cerebral functions in normal and pathological conditions. . . . [Your] innovative acts of scholarship and scientific discovery constitute a cornerstone on which future generations will build."

The other is a national figure in medical administrative leadership, Dr. William Danforth. He had a distinguished 24-year career as chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition, for more than 30 years he chaired the Danforth Foundation, which supports innovation in education, inside and outside the classroom.

One of the common elements between these individuals is vision--and the resolve to see it through to implementation. That's why their accomplishments reach so broadly, shaping medicine and also influencing the wider society. And, by the way, that's the definition of a role model. New physicians, like our own Class of 1997, and indeed all of us do well to ponder their contributions, and insist always that our vision, like that of Lou Sokoloff and Bill Danforth, reach to the stars.

At the School of Medicine's graduation exercises, we had other examples, and you can read about them in the current issue of Penn Medicine. But events, too, can help shape one's vision. This spring, we had two examples that involved both the University and the city.

The first was a conference, held downtown in March, on medical ethics. It was sponsored by our own Center for Bioethics and the American Medical Association. It ran the gamut from the origin of medical ethics in this country, to changes in ethical criteria over time, to the ever-evolving relationship between society and the medical profession, and to current and future challenges to both ethics and professional values.

One of the historical items to come from the conference involves two Penn Med alumni. The A.M.A.'s first code of ethics was cobbled together by John Bell, Class of 1817, and Isaac Hays, Class of 1820. Perhaps they learned their moral activism in medical school. In any case, it benefited the profession and society as well.

Another item is that, in the 19th century, the A.M.A. tried to get rid of quackery and promote scientific medicine. One speaker pointed out that, as we look back, much of what was touted as scientific medicine at that time looks, now, a great deal like quackery.

That's a conundrum physicians always face. It's a plus, because it means that technology to diagnose and treat is moving ahead. And it will move ahead rapidly, inevitably bringing questions in its wake: Whenever you can do something new, you will have to ask: Should you do it? And when --under all conditions? Selectively? Who will decide?

We've tried to educate the Class of 1997, and all classes, to not be on the sidelines when these questions are raised. Like John Bell and Isaac Hays, our graduates should be right in there, helping society make difficult health-care choices. That is part of one's obligation as a citizen and more especially as a physician--and, I'll add, as a Penn-trained physician.

The other event, held in April, was the Presidents' Summit on America's Future, centering on volunteerism. Among institutions of higher education, the University of Pennsylvania was the exclusive sponsor of that historic gathering. I'm happy to say that virtually none of today's new graduates need initiation into volunteerism. They and their fellow students have been generous with their scant time, and creative in producing innovative programs to take health care to under-served populations. I'm sure that, nourished in altruism as they have been, they will never let that spark of giving be extinguished. Resources will always be scarce, and they know they have been blessed with gifts and skills that enable them to relieve suffering. The Presidents' Summit surely helped them reaffirm a lifelong commitment to those in need.

At the School of Medicine, we are gearing up for Curriculum 2000, which will bring sweeping changes in the way that medical students receive information and spend their four-year course of study here. But some things will not change. Some of those are items I have just detailed: the need for vision, and the courage and strength to carry it out; an unshakably moral foundation that stands as a beacon for others; and an expansive spirit in pursuing professional and personal goals.

Dr. Kelley is Dean of the School of Medicine, Chief Executive Officer of the Medical Center and Health System, and Executive Vice President of the University of Pennsylvania for the Medical Center. His essay appeared originally in Penn Medicine, Spring 1997.


Volume 44 Number 1
July 15, 1997

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