The relationship between Nicholas P.R. Spinelli, M.D., and Yale began in 1937, when he was a mere 16-year-old from Stratford, Conn., starting his freshman year of college. This early acquaintance blossomed through his years in medical school—also at Yale—in his career as an internist and educator, in his role as a leader of alumni, and, in his later years, in philanthropy.
Ultimately it was a love affair. Those who knew him well all say the same thing: No one loved Yale School of Medicine more than Nick Spinelli.
That love was expressed in many ways, most recently with a $4.5 million bequest that will support both a professorship in neurology and a scholarship fund for medical students.
Spinelli, who died in November 2007 at the age of 86, endowed the faculty position in the name of Harry M. Zimmerman, M.D., a notable neuropathologist during Spinelli’s student days who became the founding director of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, N.Y. Spinelli funded the scholarships in keeping with his long practice of helping medical students to travel what he saw as a difficult financial road.
“He used to worry about how much it cost students to become a doctor and said he didn’t know how they did it,” says his sister, Viola Spinelli, M.P.H., a 1965 alumna and supporter of the School of Public Health.
Spinelli graduated from Yale College in 1941 and began medical school later that year. In December, after the United States entered World War II, the medical school accelerated its curriculum to a three-year program. Spinelli, like the rest of his class of 48 students, was inducted into the Army, continuing his studies and drilling on the New Haven Green as part of Yale’s Company C. Upon graduation in 1944, he shipped out to Germany, where he served as an Army physician until his return to Connecticut.
After practicing medicine for the next decade in Stratford, Spinelli was forced in 1968 by a heart condition to give up the life of a practicing internist. He was able to continue working, however, and served as director of medical education at Bridgeport Hospital, developing nearly all the hospital’s residency programs. His health improved after a bypass operation and he remained at Bridgeport until his retirement at age 65. Then he took on a new job as alumni director at the School of Medicine from 1985 to 1990.
Spinelli forged a strong bond to the School of Medicine for many of the medical students and alumni with whom he came in contact during those years. According to Sharon McManus of the medical school’s Office of Development, who was among Spinelli’s successors as alumni director, each year he would take the entire first-year class out to dinner at the venerable Yale landmark Mory’s in groups of 10.
Viola Spinelli recalls, “This was a period when a lot of foreign students began to come to Yale. He made all of them his kids.” McManus agrees: “He saw the diversity of the classes as the smorgasbord of life,” she says. “He’d say, ‘Isn’t it great that someone is going to go back to India and practice medicine in the streets of Calcutta with a Yale education?’”
Spinelli also kept close track of faculty research, and made a special point to support the work on spinal cord injury by Stephen G. Waxman, M.D., Ph.D., chair and Bridget Marie Flaherty Professor of Neurology. Spinelli’s father, Domenick, was paralyzed after falling from a wall behind the family’s home in Devon, a section of Milford, Conn. A room at the Center for Neuroscience and Regeneration Research, which Waxman directs at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System in West Haven, was dedicated in Spinelli’s honor in 2000. That same year, the medical school named its alumni office the Spinelli Office of Alumni Affairs.
Spinelli was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Yale Medal, the university’s highest honor. He received the Distinguished Alumni Service Award and the Peter Parker Medal from the School of Medicine.
But no award could match the satisfaction Spinelli received from his interactions with students and residents, says Viola Spinelli, who is providing scholarships for Yale students at the School of Public Health through the Domenick and Gertude Spinelli Fund. “In good Italian fashion, he’d say, ‘You’ve got to feed them,’ and he’d take them through the kitchen to the back room at Leon’s [a restaurant then located in the Hill neighborhood adjacent to the medical school campus]. There would be 25 students and house officers of all nationalities. That created a spirit and an environment where they learned what the practice of medicine was all about.”