Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A surprise party for a laureate

The other day the Real Doctor and I attended a surprise party held in honor of the retirement of Dr. Ivan Schwab of the Department of Ophthalmology here at the UC. Though the party was in the works for months and was attended by many dozens of people (and many others phoned in tributes) and the honoree almost did not fall for the bait, secrecy was maintained. When Dr. Schwab showed up, he was surprised. Not speechless, for that's not in his character, but surprised.

The evening unfolded as would be expected for such an event--encomiums from the department chair, co-workers, colleagues, and students past and present, amusing pictures of a younger (and much hairier) honoree, laughter and a little choking up, an impromptu speech from the guest of honor, all accompanied by wine and beer from the bar and food that one is supposed to eat with one hand while holding the plate in the other hand and your drink your other other hand.

The rule at these affairs is "nil nisi bonum,"(don't say anything unless it's good) but I think it's hard to say anything but good about Dr. Schwab. Everybody seemed to agree that he's a caring doctor, an excellent mentor, and so on. He is also the recipient of an Ig Nobel Prize for his work on why woodpeckers don't get brain damage. To me, the Ig Nobel can be a prize purer than the "real" Nobel. The Nobels reward brilliant work that changes the landscape of human knowledge. The Ig Nobels reward pure, focused curiosity--do dog fleas or cat fleas jump higher? what sort of odors do frogs produce when they're stressed? are herring communicating when they fart? The answers to these questions won't change many lives, like this year's Nobels for IVF or graphene, but they do scratch the itch of curiosity.

It's this curiosity that everybody at Schwab's party noted. Each speaker marveled at how Dr. Schwab was interested enough in this or that to actually study it--and how Dr. Schwab was surprised that one would not be interested. After a while, what stood out was not Dr. Schwab's curiosity but the fact that most ophthalmologists apparently view having serious outside interests as eccentric in the extreme. I found this a little troubling, but it falls in line with other observations I've made about many M.D.s. Perhaps it is owing to the extreme complexity and responsibility of their job, and the depth of knowledge required, but very few have intellectual pursuits outside their trade. There's also the issue of time--the Real Doctor has very little time for her interests. As the Real Doctor has noted, medicine is becoming less of an intellectual and social calling and more of an all-consuming business. So, here's my toast to you, Dr. Schwab, and may there be many more like you.

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