For the 100 students in the first-year class, the annual White Jacket Ceremony is a symbolic introduction to medicine and a welcome to Yale. This year it was also a chance for Interim Dean Dennis D. Spencer, M.D., HS ’77, to introduce himself to the Class of 2007.
Spencer, who has led the medical school since July, described his own journey into medicine, which started with a boyhood spent on a farm in Iowa. Although he plowed the fields, he identified most with the local general practitioner, just back from the Korean War. “He wore a white coat, walked with a limp from a shrapnel injury, carried a big black bag and drove an oversized black Cadillac around the countryside, literally—and what appeared to be miraculously—saving lives, including mine, with a newly discovered antibiotic, penicillin,” Spencer said.
In high school Spencer tried, unsuccessfully, to make an EEG amplifier, and then resolved to become a physician. At Grinnell College and in medical school at Washington University in St. Louis, Spencer followed his interest in the nervous system, which led him to neurosurgery. Spencer came to Yale in 1972 to begin a five-year residency and has led neurosurgery here since 1987.
After sketching his own life, Spencer described the students. The 100 members of the Class of 2007, he said, have attended 46 colleges, earned master’s degrees at eight universities and Ph.D.s at three.
He urged the students to embrace the Yale System’s emphasis on the physician as scientist. “You must quantitatively understand the physical- and biological-science underpinnings of the evolved human by sharing the bench with our scientists and our clinics with clinical researchers,” he continued. “You must wear the white coat comfortably in both places, speak both the language of science and the language of caring.”
Margaret K. Hostetter, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Pediatrics, told the story of a white coat she first wore as an intern in Boston and the reminders of individual patients stitched into its cloth. “Today you will wear the white coat, and you too will see life’s fabric torn, its texture raveled and its pattern rent. … And once you’ve put it on, don’t ever take it off.”