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Alum Retraces His Life’s Path To Harvard Medical Dean


Courtesy Daily News Record

HARRISONBURG — Joseph Martin, a native of Canada and Eastern Mennonite University graduate, credits a firm foun­dation in reality, tempered with plenty of humor, as the cornerstone of his tenure as head of one the nation’s most prestigious medical schools.

Martin shared nearly 50 years of medical school wit and wisdom with about 75 people at Eastern Mennonite Univer­sity Tuesday evening. His visit was the kickoff of a tour to support his new book, “Alfalfa to Ivy: Memoir of a Harvard Medical School Dean.”

Martin said his interest in medicine was inspired in part by visits from mission­aries to his childhood church. They shared stories of success, connection and fulfillment in faraway places and he sought to follow in their footsteps.

“At the age of 16, I arrived in Edmonton to begin studies at the University of Alberta and I was frightened,” said Martin, quoting from his book. “The world outside Duchess [Alberta] seemed overwhelm­ing, the big city huge and for­bidding. It was vibrant with sophistication I felt I lacked.”

After three years there, including a year of medical school, Martin felt led to make a change. He trans­ferred to then-Eastern Men­nonite College to study mu­sic, church history, ethics and choral conducting.

Degree from Eastern Men­nonite in Bible in 1959.

“EMC was an exhilarat­ing place,” Martin continued. “I had never seen so many el­igible Mennonite girls in one place.” The crowd laughed.

Ultimately though, he chose one girl, Rachel Wenger Martin ’61, to be his wife and they’re still married today.

Martin went on to earn a medical degree from the University of Alberta in 1962 and a doctorate in anatomy from the Univer­sity of Rochester in 1971.

In his professional ca­reer, Martin has served as chief of neurology at Mass­achusetts General Hospi­tal, dean of the school of medicine and later chan­cellor of the University of California, San Francisco.

In 1997, he was named dean of the Harvard Facul­ty of Medicine, a role he held until 2007. Today, he continues at Harvard as an endowed professor of neurobiology.

After his remarks, Mar­tin responded to questions from the audience. One was what advice would he offer to Congress when it comes to health care reform.

He said in part that the primary care system must be strengthened. That does­n’t mean, he said, it’s time to educate more doctors.

Part of the problem, he explained, is that right now, a patient’s medical care is spread among so many specialists that it’s hard to manage.

Responding to another question, Martin also said health care reform legisla­tion should be anchored in five fundamental principles: accessibility, accuracy, ad­vice, affability, affordability. EMU President Loren Swartzendruber praised Martin’s insight at a recep­tion following the program. “His wide range of expe­riences puts him in a posi­tion to speak with a great deal of authority,” Swartzen­druber said. “He’s such a genuine person.”

At least one aspiring doctor, EMU junior Abigail Carr, came away inspired by Martin’s talk.

“It was fascinating to hear all the different in­sights he’s had over the course of his life in very relevant topics … and how it connects to the future,” said Carr, who is studying premedicine and biology.

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