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"Alfalfa to Ivy": Memoir of a Harvard Medical School Dean

Posted by John McDonough  May 20, 2012 10:25 PM

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joe martin.jpgI just finished reading the recently published autobiography of Dr. Joseph B. Martin MD, former Dean of Harvard Medical School (1997-2007) and Dean of Medicine and Chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco, Medical School. He has written a compelling personal history of U.S. academic medicine since the 1970s that honestly confronts many of the controversies and conflicts afflicting our medical system, especially the conflicts of interest between American medicine and the industrial medical complex.

Dr. Martin was born into a Mennonite farm family in depression era Alberta Canada in 1938. One of his many compelling stories involves his uncle Sam who went to prison rather than violate his religious objections to military service in World War II. In spite of a lifetime career in the cathedrals of American medicine, he never lost that common sense approach to difficult decisions.

One of the compelling chapters involves Martin's relationship with former Harvard President Larry Summers:

"Joe," Larry said abruptly, midway across Harvard Yard, "I was in the Harvard Coop Bookstore the other day and picked up a book by one of your faculty, Walter Willett. Who is he anyway? And by what authority does he propose to modify the Department of Agriculture food pyramid? What right does he have to make policy recommendations? Does the Medical School endorse his views? Did you review his work before he published it? The cover the book mentions Harvard medical School as if you gave an imprimatur to the work."

This was my first encounter with the unnerving quality of Larry's confrontational style, and I immediately realized that every minute with him would revolve around problem-solving.

Walter Willett is on the faculty of the School of Public Health, not the School of Medicine, and is one of the most respected nutritional scientists in the nation.  So that was fun.

Here's the part that surprised me the most. Dr. Joseph Martin, MD, one of the most respected and powerful physicians in modern U.S. medicine, and a Canadian native, has no reservations about his real health policy preference:

Throughout this debate, I have been reassured by how often recognition and affirmation has been given to the Canadian health care system, which, despite problems of access and escalating costs, remains capable of administering effective health care with statistical measures that outstrip the US data by a significant margin at approximately half the cost.

The book is Alfalfa to Ivory and it's well worth a read for any serious student of U.S. health policy.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

John E. McDonough is a professor of practice at the Harvard School of Public Health. He is the author of the book “Inside National Health Reform”, published in 2011 by More »


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