Alfalfa to Ivy: Memoir of a Harvard Medical School Dean by Joseph B. Martin (Gutteridge Books, 2011)
It's a Harvard dilemma: a person of uncountable accomplishments decides to write an autobiography. It’s easy to be precise (as well as being a stellar clinician, the writer is also a renowned researcher). But is it so easy to be likeable?
There is a solution—but don’t try it, because it’s just been used. This autobiography has a cover photo of the author standing in a field of hay, wearing blue jeans, and holding a baseball cap. Alfalfa to Ivy: Memoir of a Harvard Medical School Dean, by Joseph B. Martin, is 397 pages of eminence. Yet in the end, that friendly alfalfa sets the tone.
In some ways, this is the story of a man who cannot stay put. Martin begins his book in the 1600s, with a set of maps and a history of the Swiss Anabaptists who became his Mennonite ancestors. Family life in Duchess, Alberta, Canada—population less than 100—included driving a tractor at five, going to church twice on Sundays (“I was a pious young man”), and skinning weasels. His early ambition was to become a missionary doctor. Instead, he became chief of neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital, co-editor of Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, co-creator of the Huntington Disease Center Without Walls, which mapped the gene for that disease, and dean of the medical school at the University of California, San Francisco, and at Harvard. He and his wife moved ten times before he finished his PhD, and their four children were born in four different cities. Martin may be a genius, but his wife is a saint.
All this might lead to a long resume under the cover of a book. Curiosity saves the author, though. He likes digging around, whether in soil, memory, cultural history, or genetics. He never forgets a name or event, either. This may have to do with a synesthetic gift he discovered while in medical school at the University of Alberta; he could organize numbers and dates in space, and—lucky student—memorized Gray’s Anatomy in 3D. All this led to careers in neurology and neuroendocrine research, and they led to a full professorship at McGill University by age 37.
While at Massachusetts General Hospital, Martin discovered another gift: He could survive, better than most, “the internecine and often unforgiving warfare that…characterizes our academic institutions.” He put his Mennonite tolerance to use as an administrator, and in 1989, became dean of UCSF, moving to San Francisco just in time for a 7.3 Richter-scale earthquake. In 1997, he came back to Harvard.
From the “adminosphere,” Martin updated information technology, increased faculty and student diversity, renovated the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, negotiated contentious research hospital mergers, and, with unabashed symbolism, unlocked the front entrance to Building A for the first time in decades. Open, ye mysterious administrative door! He also pondered the paradox of Harvard, where hospitals that carry its prestigious name are not owned (and therefore can’t be bossed around by) the medical school. “In sharp contrast to the symbolism of the job,” he writes, “is the relative impotency that comes with it.”
Always, he believed in “the imperative of collaborative relationships,” and the power of listening, “the will to…try to understand what others are saying, even when it lacks clarity.” After retiring in 2007, he returned to teaching. He also returned, a visitor, to the farm town where family still lives. It must have been during one of those visits that he returned to the family farm and the field of hay. Standing in its midst, he looks happy and humble—really, not like a dean at all.
Elissa Ely ’88 is a psychiatrist at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center.