After a lifetime of tending first to children, then to young adults, Alan C. Mermann, M.D., M.Div., is about to embark on a third career, ministering to the elderly and the sick. Mermann, 76, retired in June as the medical school’s second chaplain, a post he assumed “temporarily” 17 years ago.
With its pots of coffee and stacks of newspapers, magazines and crossword puzzles, Mermann’s basement office has offered students a respite from the rigors of medical education. Some have come for something to drink or to sack out on the sofas. Others have sought counseling about personal matters. The chaplain also has chaired a committee on pediatric ethics and taught courses on serious and chronic illness, pairing students with patients who can talk about what it is like to have a life-threatening disease. “I found a patient for each student,” Mermann says. “It was a patient with something serious such as metastatic cancer, AIDS, renal failure or leukemia. The patient taught the student what they were going through. They recounted their experiences with physicians such as the characteristics of the good doctor and the not-such-a-good doctor.”
Mermann never has stopped studying and last year acquired a master’s degree in the history of medicine. He has articulated his beliefs on faith and ethics in two books, Some Chose To Stay: Faith and Ethics in a Time of Plague and To Do No Harm: Learning to Care for the Seriously Ill, and was the author of the Yale Physician’s Oath, which he administered to each graduating class at Commencement. Asked if his courses have helped shape more compassionate physicians, he answers, “It may be that the half of the class that takes the course is the half that doesn’t need to.”
Mermann’s interest in the health of children led him to the Deep South in the 1960s at the peak of the civil rights movement. He testified before the Senate and co-authored the report on child malnutrition that helped launch President Johnson’s War on Hunger. His travels through the South sent him on a search for answers to the question of good and evil that led him, at the age of 50, to the Yale Divinity School. In 1982 he gave up his pediatric practice in Guilford and a year later took on the chaplaincy. It was to be a temporary position.
The chaplaincy was created in 1967 and first filled by David Duncombe. “One of the things the medical school has done in the past,” Mermann says, “is to provide a number of places where students can seek advice. All the way from ‘Where’s the best pizza?’ to ‘I need a psychiatrist.’ I think it’s a shame to lose one of the places where students can go to talk about things in depth that are important to them.”
The office endured and so did Mermann, who, helped by students who rallied to its defense, survived an attempt in the early 1990s to abolish the office for budgetary reasons.
After 17 years he felt it was time to move on. Although unsure of his plans, Mermann, a pro bono pastor at the Norfolk Congregational Church, hopes to continue ministering, possibly to the elderly. He also is at work on two books, one on the history of medicine, the other on depictions of disease in literature. Looking back on his tenure as chaplain, he describes his interactions with students as “a gift.” “They are so bright and intelligent and questioning and hopeful that it has been a very encouraging experience to see them coming along with everything they have to offer.”
Mermann was the second and last chaplain at the medical school, which decided not to fill the position after he left. According to Nancy R. Angoff, M.P.H. ’81, M.D. ’90, HS ’93, associate dean for student affairs, Mermann, the man, can never be replaced, but the students have other resources for personal and religious counseling.
But Yale has not seen the last of Mermann. As he told a reporter several years ago when interviewed for an article on medical education, when he dies Mermann plans to be going “up there.” He was referring not to the Pearly Gates, but to the third-floor anatomy laboratory, to which he has bequeathed his earthly remains for the training of future physicians.