At Hopkins, wisdom of the ages

January 28, 2002|By Sun staff

On Saturday, more than 80 friends turned out to wish him a happy 100th birthday. Today, the 23 people who make up the four generations of his family will hold their own celebration. And then tomorrow, or maybe the next day, Dr. Thomas B. "Tommy" Turner will think about getting back to his office at the Johns Hopkins Medical School.

Dr. Turner, dean emeritus of the school he led from 1957 to 1968, has been part of the Hopkins medical community for 75 of his 100 years, arriving just two years after graduating from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 1925. A man whose desire, he once told The Sun, was to be a country doctor, Dr. Turner has had to settle instead for being one of the grand old men of American medicine: a teacher, an innovator, a researcher whose work helped develop treatments for a variety of sexually transmitted diseases.

On the occasion of his 100th birthday, Dr. Turner agreed to sit for a few questions. Though he still regularly visits the office suite he shares with two other former deans, he admits to having slowed down a bit. But, note his daughters Patricia Walker and Anne Pope, his attitude toward life has not changed a bit. As the family gathered for dinner Saturday evening, they said, he made his customary toast: "Now let's live it up!"

A few years ago, a colleague described your role at Hopkins as "a bridge to the past and a pillar for the future." Of course, you are still part of its present. But what do you think your particular legacy at the medical school is?

I think that what my legacy is will have to be decided by others. But when I was dean, I tried to do two things. First, I wanted to be sure that intelligence and brainpower were the most important criteria for admission - not who you were or what race or religion or sex you were. Before my time, certain groups of people weren't considered adequately or weren't considered at all.

Second, I wanted to increase communication within the medical school, between the medical school and the hospital, and between the medical institutions and the university. Milton Eisenhower, who was the president of Johns Hopkins, Russ Nelson, who was head of the hospital, Ernest "Stebbie" Stebbins, who headed up the School of Hygiene, and I talked almost daily individually or as a group.

As a young man, you once had ambitions of becoming a lawyer instead of a doctor. Have you ever regretted your decision not to follow that path?

I surely have not! My father suggested that I should think about medicine because I had had family in medicine all the way back. I can't think of anything that could have been more satisfying and fulfilling for me than medicine.

At Hopkins, full-time faculty members were on salary. So we didn't have to think about money in relation to patients. We could concentrate on how to treat people. There were three parts to Hopkins' mission: providing the best treatment for the patient; teaching the medical students who saw patients along with us; and trying to add new knowledge to medical practice.

Your life-long specialization has been syphilis and related diseases. The last 20 years have seen the rise of another more virulent sexually transmitted disease, one that has resisted a "cure." Do you see the day coming when AIDS will be as treatable as the diseases your work helped cure?

Yes, I do. I'm very optimistic about eliminating AIDS. But, it might not be a cure. One of the important parts of medicine is to look at how to prevent something as well as to cure it. Polio, for example, which I also worked on, was eradicated because of a vaccine to prevent it rather than a remedy to cure it.

You've been a single man now for about 20 years. According to friends, though, you remain something of a "chick magnet." What is the role of romance in the life of a man of 100?

Romance has been an important element in my whole life. I like most people and most women, but there are some I find unusually attractive. Even at 100, I still do.

Late last century, you said that you'd lived through three major revolutions: the birth of the modern world, the development of antibiotics and the arrival of the computer age. Of the last, you said that you weren't sure where it was going to take us. Any thoughts about where we are heading in this new century?

The computer, like the engine, is just a mechanical process and has had an enormous effect. But I think the most important thing in this new century will be to learn how to live and associate our lives with people around the world, not just our close neighbors. How to do this is one of the things we'll have to deal with.

Your 1993 list of "A Few Things Learned During a Long Life" is often quoted. You've had almost another decade of life since then. Is there any new truism you'd add to your list? Any that you would amend? Which would you single out as the most important lesson of all?

The most important now as then is: Love. Affection and compassion are allied but not the same. Reciprocated love is rare; affection supports life's infrastructure; compassion underpins the world.

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