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Alumnus is winner of Yale’s highest honor

Medicine@Yale, 2008 - Mar Apr


Yale Medal recognizes physician’s seven decades of service to alma mater

Samuel D. Kushlan, M.D., received many honors throughout a distinguished career spanning seven decades. But last November brought a particularly proud moment for Kushlan—a “double blue” who graduated from Yale College in 1932 and from the School of Medicine in 1935—when he received the Yale Medal in recognition for his innumerable contributions to his alma mater. The medal, the highest award bestowed by the Association of Yale Alumni (AYA), is given annually to five alumni in honor of outstanding service to the university.

Although Kushlan officially retired from medicine in 1982, a typical morning still finds him at the School of Medicine or Yale-New Haven Hospital attending “morning report” on patients, reading journal articles in the medical library or going to internal medicine grand rounds. At 95, Kushlan still drives almost every day to the hospital where he has worked for 70 years and continues to be a role model for younger colleagues.

Born in New Britain, Conn., in 1912, Kushlan was so inspired by his local doctor that he knew he wanted to be a physician by the age of 10. After graduating from the School of Medicine, he completed his residency at what was then New Haven Hospital, earning a salary of $25 a month. His main diagnostic tools were taking a medical history and doing a physical exam—X-rays were the only imaging technique available; and in those pre-penicillin days, the principal medications were aspirin, digitalis, phenobarbital, quinine and morphine. “Medicine was very primitive 70 years ago,” he recalls. Today more than 4,000 medications are listed in the Physicians’ Desk Reference.

Except for a brief stint at Harvard in 1938, Kushlan spent his entire career at Yale. He established the first endoscopy clinic in Connecticut in 1942 and was the sole member of Yale’s gastroenterology section from 1938 until 1955.

From 1967 until his retirement, Kushlan served as the associate physician-in-chief at Yale-New Haven Hospital and as a clinical professor of medicine. When he retired, one of the hospital’s medical services was named for him, although he said he feels out of place among the other legendary physicians—Elisha Atkins, M.D.; John P. Peters, M.D.; Gerald Klatskin, M.D.; Allan Goodyer, M.D.; and Robert Donaldson, M.D.—with whom he shares this honor.

Although he says he does more learning than teaching these days, Kushlan still has wisdom to impart from the days when the practice of medicine relied more on observation than on diagnostic tests.

He advises colleagues to use such simple diagnostic methods as having a patient with back pain lie down to determine its source: if the pain goes away, it’s muscular; if it doesn’t, it’s internal.

“I sort of toss in a pearl from time to time to pay my way,” he says.

In addition to his activities at the hospital and the lectures and concerts he regularly attends with Ethel, his wife of 73 years, Kushlan also remains an active member of the executive committee of the Association of Yale Alumni and Medicine. He has established Merit Awards for the Medical House Staff and Digestive Disease Fellows and has volunteered his time and resources to create a Capital Visiting Professorship in Gastroenterology.

“I enjoy the opportunity to be busy,” he says.

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