Howard Markel, MD, PhD
Author, George E. Wantz Distinguished Professor of the History of Medicine, and Director, Center for the History of Medicine (U-M),
Grad Year: 1982
Other areas of sudy/degree(s):
What the Michigan English Degree Did for Me
I can honestly declare that everything about my development as a writer—has been a direct result of the four wonderful years I spent reading and discussing novels, poems, and plays with the distinguished faculty of English and my fellow classmates at the University of Michigan. In terms of disclosure, I should note that I am neither a literary scholar nor a producer of literature. I write medical history, journalism and non-fiction. As an undergraduate, I latched onto the idea of making a contribution to both medicine and, for want of a better term, the medical humanities. In the years since, I have spent the bulk of my time reading, re-reading, and thinking about literary and historical works as well as extracting complex—and sometimes confusing—stories of illness from ailing patients and myriad other sources. As a physician, I have always found such an approach to be helpful in figuring out a great many medical problems. As a writer, historian, and journalist, this worldview has enabled my understanding and explanation of the human condition, which is, after all, the purview of both physicians and authors. Sometime between college and medical school I discovered the allure of narrative history. The demand to tell history well appealed to the left side of my brain and its rigor in terms of documenting every statement made with a text or piece of evidence appealed to the right side. It was a Eureka-like moment that I have yet to recover from. Angels were singing, harps strummed, and a warm, fuzzy feeling energized my body. I had found my literary quarry. I now knew what I wanted to write about. And with due respect to all who love literature and fiction, real life events are typically far better than anything any human could ever make up.
After graduating from college in 1982, I went on to medical school at Michigan and thence in 1986 to training as a pediatrician and a historian of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University. Once receiving the necessary union cards from that august institution in 1993, I was called back to Ann Arbor to become a professor of pediatrics and the history of medicine and have been here ever since. Ironically, that was precisely my career goal when I graduated, which reminds me of another pearl of wisdom: be very careful what you wish for. In retrospect, it was a youthful, if not outright naïve, belief that I could succeed as a doctor who studied the humanities and actually make a living at it. Indeed, when I told my father upon completing my residency training in pediatrics that instead of joining a lucrative private practice on New York City’s Park Avenue, I was matriculating into the Johns Hopkins Ph.D. program in the history of medicine, he shook his head and wearily replied, “Howard, you find new ways of making less money each year.”
Similarly, on the last day of my pediatrics residency, a rather prominent immunologist came up to the floor I was supervising. He was arrogant, self-assured, and confident that he would someday win the Nobel Prize—an achievement he has still not been accorded, by the way. As I scribbled my last notes, the doctor asked me what I was going to be doing the following morning. I proudly told him of my graduate school plans and he looked at me, incredulously, as if I had just told him I planned on flying to Jupiter on the back of a Hershey bar. “Why do you want to study medical history,” he asked, “when you can make it?” I came up with an answer but in the interest of full disclosure, it was not until a few weeks later, while shaving and still stewing in resentment: “Oh yeah?” I thought as I imagined another meeting with him, “Just you wait. I’m going to write the history of medicine and guess what? You’re not going to be in it!”
From the distance of nearly three decades, my career looks like a rather direct path but in reality it was somewhat circuitous and represented a significant gambling of resources. There were no guarantees I would be able to create such a position in a medical school back in the 1980s and there were relatively few role models with which to compare or model my career goals. I was, as they used to day in the days of early aviation, flying by the seat of my pants. Recently my wife asked me if when I was writing my first book about quarantines and epidemics (Quarantine!, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) did I ever think it would be quoted in the White House let alone become the basis for federal and international policies of pandemic preparedness planning. I told her that I may have briefly held such hopes—all authors hope that their work makes a difference—but I soon gave those notions up as a long shot at best. But in reality, I think I always had a goal of playing a role in the public conversation about serious and important matters. I just didn’t broadcast them, in case they failed to come true. I might add that there were many days when these goals seemed quite distant.
If there is a secret to success, I would like to share my interpretation of it with you. Long before I convinced publishers to publish my books or editors at the New York Times and NPR to run my pieces and observations; long before the federal government asked me to weigh in on their pandemic public health policies; long before the honors I received came for others to admire or regret; and even longer before I knew precisely how I would do what I now do daily, I knew had to find something I loved, something that I had a true passion for, and I had to have enough faith in myself to follow that passion with every ounce of energy I possessed.
It worked. I brought as much excitement and joy to my work this morning as I did 28 years ago. My work is always changing, always interesting, and always challenging. If I can give any advice to undergraduates and alumni in these troubled times, it would be simply this: pursue whatever dream stimulates your psyche. Find your passion—no matter how silly it may seem to others. Grab it, and hang onto it for dear life. But also, be humble enough to realize that passion and talent will only get you so far. Hard work will always get you even farther.
But of course you already knew that. That is one of the reasons, students decide to major in English in the first place. If you make that decision, you take away a skill set that few of your peers who studied other topics have yet to master. We live in an age that no longer has the patience or even the ability to appreciate the nuances of language and the perspectives of other voices. You, on the other hand, have learned how to read complex texts with a nuanced eye and deep understanding. Take heart, therefore, in knowing that no matter what you ultimately do, no matter what your profession, occupation or task, you will constantly be called upon to read and understand texts, people, and situations in the years to come.
Howard Markel, MD, PhD
Faith Adler Brown, Erin Crowley, Dory Gannes, Aric Knuth, Lawrence Landman, Katherine MacNair, Howard Markel, MD, PhD, Sarah Marwil Lamstein, Kelly O’Connor McNees, Amanda Richardson, Michael Richman, Melissa Shook, Rebecca Soares, Kurt Taroff, Lisa Vandenbossche, Lee Woldenberg, Anne Wyman, Charles Aldrich, Betsy Carter, Jennifer Conlin, Sanjay Mohanty, Fred Uleman
Related Career FieldsEducation, Journalism, Medicine, Writer