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“A gentle man”

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2012 - Autumn


Arthur Ebbert Jr.’s friends and colleagues recall his graciousness and unfailing courtesy.

When Leon E. Rosenberg, M.D., HS ’63, became the dean in 1984, he immediately asked Arthur Ebbert Jr., M.D., to stay on as deputy dean. Ebbert, who had spent more than 30 years in the School of Medicine’s administration, including 10 as deputy dean, had planned to take a sabbatical year and return to the university in a different role. But Rosenberg needed Ebbert’s help with the fundraising campaign, the construction of new buildings, and his state of the school address. Ebbert agreed to stay for two more years to help the new dean gain a foothold, beginning with providing feedback on the draft of the address.

“His advice was always measured and based on experience, but always given with decency and politeness, with diplomatic wording,” Rosenberg recalls. “I told him I was going to count on him to tell me which doors to open and which to keep closed. He understood what that meant.”

Though Ebbert regularly reminded Rosenberg that the clock was ticking, he agreed when Rosenberg entreated him to stay an additional year. “But I think there was another thing going on,” Rosenberg joked at Ebbert’s retirement reception in 1987. “He was going to wait to be sure that I didn’t screw up what he’d been working 34 years to set up around here.”

Ebbert died on June 7 in Hamden, Conn., where he had retired. He was 89. He left a brief obituary to share with the medical school community but requested that it not be submitted to the newspapers and that no memorial service be held in his honor. His friends and colleagues remembered him as an unassuming, modest man, who preferred to stay out of the limelight.

Many roles in a time of change

In his 34-year tenure, Ebbert filled a number of roles during a time of change around the country and at the School of Medicine. He arrived in 1953 at the invitation of Dean Vernon W. Lippard, M.D. ’29, with whom he had worked at the University of Virginia, where Ebbert had received his undergraduate and medical degrees and completed his residency in medicine. He worked his way up the academic ladder at Yale from instructor to professor to assistant dean of postgraduate education, then to associate and deputy dean, and served under three more deans—Frederick C. Redlich, M.D., Lewis Thomas, M.D., and Robert W. Berliner, M.D.—before Rosenberg. Ebbert watched the faculty grow from 150 to more than 700, and class size increase from 60 to 100 students. When Ebbert came to Yale, women made up only 10 percent of each class but by the time of his retirement, their numbers were approaching 50 percent.

“You could have been dean many times at many schools, but you chose to stay at Yale,” Berliner said at Ebbert’s retirement reception. “Five deans! One dean is too much for many of us. … It’s my conviction that you, working with five deans, have done more for this school than any other person since Dean Winternitz made it a modern medical school.”

Transformations across the country found their way to Yale as well during Ebbert’s time. In 1965 the implementation of Medicare and Medicaid created a new source of revenue for doctors and hospitals as the government now paid for patients previously treated without charge. These changes, along with increased understanding of the complexity of science and medicine, prompted increased specialization—leading to the creation of several new departments in the early 1970s, including anesthesiology, neurology, and laboratory medicine. In the same year that the Medicare program went into effect, the Grace-New Haven Community Hospital and the School of Medicine ratified a new affiliation agreement, and the hospital was renamed the Yale-New Haven Hospital (YNHH), reflecting its role as the university’s main teaching hospital.

New buildings rose on campus, including Harkness Hall in 1955, and a year after Ebbert’s retirement, the Yale Physicians Building. In 1981 the Yale Faculty Practice Plan was created to coordinate the clinical activities of the full-time medical faculty into one multispecialty group practice.

As Ebbert rose through the ranks, however, he saw fewer and fewer patients. He spent his days in the dean’s office approving faculty promotions and appointments; overseeing surveys of the school by the Association of American Medical Colleges; interviewing prospective students; and advising students about their postgraduate plans. Ebbert also chaired the Student Advisory Council, established in 1963 to provide students with a faculty mentor who could guide them in understanding the relationship between basic science and clinical medicine, selecting elective courses, and starting research projects for their theses.

But those who observed him in the clinic thought that a physician with such patience and perception, who had honed his skills in internal medicine as a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in postwar Japan, should have been treating patients. In a letter to Ebbert upon his retirement, Donald S. Dock, M.D., HS ’57, wrote:

“My first encounter with you was as the physician for a patient with suspected pheochromocytoma on one of the Winchester wards in the summer of 1955. I had just come up after an internship at Hopkins and recall clearly marveling at the astute way you picked apart that case. For a while I thought it was a loss to the practicing world that you had taken a big job in the dean’s area, but I’ve quickly realized how important that move was to the medical school.”

Indeed, Ebbert’s friends and colleagues recall not just the projects he oversaw or the administrative tasks he performed but also his way of making people feel that they could confide in him, and his calming, trustworthy effect. He understood the challenges that the faculty faced—funding, personality incompatibilities, career decisions. He would listen to these dilemmas patiently, always offering fair and wise counsel. Ebbert was “a vital link between the faculty and the administration,” said Dorothy Horstmann, M.D., FW ’43, a close friend, at his retirement reception. (Horstmann, a researcher whose key finding about polio led to the development of a vaccine, was the first woman to be named a full professor at the medical school.)

“If you had a question about where to turn next, ‘Ask Art’ was the motto,” recalls John E. Fenn, M.D. ’61, HS ’67, clinical professor of surgery (vascular). “Anybody could approach [him] with any kind of problem, and if he didn’t solve it, he knew how to give you advice to go about seeking a solution.” As chief of staff of YNHH from 1982 to 1993, Fenn himself often turned to Ebbert for advice, finding in Ebbert a comforting ally at the School of Medicine. Whether it was a problematic student, a lost key, or a widow who needed an escort to a university function, Ebbert could be relied upon to help.

Friendships maintained

Ebbert, who was born in Wheeling, W.Va., in 1922, was an only child and never married. “His family was Yale,” said Sharon McManus, major gifts officer for the School of Medicine, who knew Ebbert when she was director of alumni affairs.

Many of the students he interviewed for the admissions process during his early years at Yale went on to become faculty members and colleagues, including Fenn; Gerard N. Burrow, M.D. ’58, professor emeritus of medicine, who became dean of the medical school; and Michael Kashgarian, M.D. ’58, HS ’63, FW ’65, professor emeritus of pathology. (At the time, the admissions committee consisted of Ebbert and his friend and colleague Thomas R. Forbes, Ph.D., the Ebenezer K. Hunt Professor of Anatomy and an associate dean of the medical school.) Ebbert formed friendships through this role that endured long after the students had graduated. To maintain those friendships he founded the Alumni Bulletin, the precursor of Yale Medicine, in 1953. The early issues were simple eight-page newsletters, the editorial staff consisting of Ebbert and his assistant, Guldane Mahakian.

The first issue entreated its alumni readers to act as both “field correspondents and literary critics,” and to welcome the Bulletin as “the expression of a real desire on the part of the new School administration to strengthen the loyalties of our Yale family.” “Alumni looked to him as a personal link to the school,” remembers Kashgarian, who succeeded Ebbert as editor in chief of the publication in 1986, a position he still holds.

The Bulletin reported on everything from the meetings of the Association of Yale Alumni in Medicine (AYAM) and the recipients of awards and appointments to student performance on board examinations. The Bulletin was also a forum for such news as the School of Medicine’s adoption of a coat of arms, reported in the October 1963 issue.

As the school grew, so did the publication, with contributions from other members of the medical school community; in 1966, its name was changed to Yale Medicine. Long after Ebbert had stepped down as editor in chief, he continued to send newspaper and magazine clippings about alumni achievements to include in the next issue.

He also served as the medical school’s delegate to the AYAM, always returning with impeccable reports of their meetings, McManus recalls. For his dedication, Ebbert was made an honorary member of the association.

His long-term friendships and his institutional memory made him “the library of the place,” Rosenberg says. Fittingly, he loved the Medical Library and “thought it was one of the jewels in the crown of Yale School of Medicine,” remembers library director Kenny Marone, M.L.S.

A longtime friend and member of the Associates of the Medical Library, Ebbert served as its membership chair. Ebbert made sure that the collections and the staff were appreciated and protected, Marone says. He established a memorial fund in honor of his parents in 1977. He was also a devoted member of both the Nathan Smith Club for faculty and students interested in the history of medicine and the Beaumont Medical Club for physicians in the community and at Yale. At the club’s monthly meetings, members would drink sherry and listen to a presentation given by one of their fellow members, followed by dinner in the Beaumont Room. They would toast the anonymous donor of the wine—who was Ebbert, Burrow recalls.

Merle Waxman, M.A., director of the Office for Women in Medicine, has several books that were gifts from Ebbert, including The Trauma of Moving: Psychological Issues for Women and The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, both written by friends of his. Inside the books are labels on which Ebbert had recorded the date in his clear, precise handwriting. She remembers that when she became director of the Office for Women in Medicine, which Ebbert and Berliner were instrumental in establishing in 1975, he offered to sponsor her membership at Mory’s, a private club for alumni, faculty, students, and others affiliated with Yale. “But Dr. Ebbert, isn’t that a club for men?” Waxman asked. “Oh, no, my dear,” Ebbert responded, explaining that the club had been open to women since 1972. Waxman ended up becoming a member.

Ebbert, she said, “was willing to speak and to defend fairness,” when it came to gender disparities at the School of Medicine. Ebbert advised the office, which seeks to increase the visibility and accomplishments of women in medicine and to provide them with social and professional support. He supported revisions to Yale’s tenure system that would allow tenure-track women to work half time, giving them more time to achieve tenure, as many of them were simultaneously starting families. Ebbert also helped in the creation of the Phyllis Bodel Childcare Center, which has provided on-site care for the children of faculty, students, and staff since 1979.

Christmas cards, sailboats, and lunches at Mory’s

“Art looks like Mister Rogers, he sounds like Mister Rogers, and he behaves like Mister Rogers!” Rosenberg’s wife, Diane Drobnis, and daughter, Alexa, used to say.

Like Mister Rogers, whom Ebbert portrayed in a second-year show, he was everybody’s favorite neighbor. Ebbert’s friends and colleagues recall that he always asked after their family’s welfare and sent handwritten Christmas cards every year. He maintained an extensive social network and always kept in touch with people—catching up with friends over lunch at Mory’s. His guests would arrive to find him sitting at his favorite table dressed in a jacket and striped, regimental tie—his uniform no matter the occasion. “I’m sure he didn’t go skiing in a tie—but it’s hard to picture—I’ve only ever seen him in ties,” says Waxman.

Ebbert loved to ski and sail. He was a member of the Sachem’s Head Yacht Club in nearby Guilford and owned a 24-foot-long Pearson Ensign sailboat named Goose. He purchased the Ensign from a family who named their boats after birds with a double o in their names (another of the family’s boats was named Loon). Though Ebbert didn’t particularly like the name, he kept it since it is bad luck to change a boat’s name.

“He was a consummate sailor,” recalls Francis M. Lobo, M.D. ’92, who met Ebbert through the Nathan Smith Club and crewed on Goose during races. On the downwind leg, when there was nothing to do but relax, Ebbert would break out gingersnap cookies and iced tea, while most other crews would be drinking something harder.

This kind of old-fashioned gentlemanly behavior was typical of Ebbert—he always opened the door for women with a smile on his face, never raised his voice, and was particular in his speech—when he dictated to his assistant, he included punctuation marks. When his mother’s health was failing he would visit her almost daily, reading aloud to her after the print became too small for her to make out. Ebbert also looked after Helen Forbes, the widow of his long-time friend and colleague, with the same devotion.

This loyalty extended from his friendships into his personal habits. He didn’t own a television, preferring to keep informed about current events through newspapers, magazines, and the radio. He didn’t have an e-mail address and wrote all his notes by hand. He drove only American cars, with a preference for Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets.

“He was an extraordinary, comforting, gentle man. Not gentleman; gentle man. And a gentleman as well. Clearly a gentleman as well,” Fenn says.

Before Art and After Art

“This is really the end of an era at the Yale School of Medicine—it is the Ebbert era,” Rosenberg announced at Ebbert’s retirement—or “commencement,” if you asked Ebbert—reception in 1987, where Ebbert’s admirers overflowed the courtyard outside of Harkness Dormitory. “ ‘;B.A.’ may mean something to some of you concerning this time of year, but to us it means ‘;Before Art.’ And ‘;A.A.’ may have significance to you, but to me it will always mean ‘;After Art.’ ”

On that pleasant June day, Ebbert’s devotion to the school was recognized, to his surprise, with the naming of the third-floor lounge of the Hope Building in his honor. His colleagues could not think of a more appropriate place, as the lounge was “a gathering point” for students, faculty, and alumni, representing Ebbert’s relationships with all.

True to character, Ebbert spoke only a few words of thanks at the ceremony, wanting his guests to get back to enjoying the party. “I know you probably would have preferred to go golfing or play tennis or sail or do your gardening,” he said. While the speakers before him had lauded his service to the students, faculty, and alumni, Ebbert paid tribute to the staff—the business managers and the secretaries. “They’re the people that know how to get things done around here,” he said. He asked Mahakian, his administrative assistant of 22 years, to stand, and presented her with a bouquet of flowers. She wrote in a thank-you note to Ebbert, “As a number of people have told me since, they know of no one else who would have honored their secretary as you did. … It was a party for you but I’m so happy you included me!”

Ebbert received a stack of letters from former colleagues, students, and friends who could not attend the reception but wanted to add to the chorus of congratulations and words of thanks. The letters came from as far away as Los Angeles and Miami and as close as the School of Nursing. Many wrote that they had learned of his retirement from an article in Yale Medicine, reaffirming the importance of the publication he had founded.

From the wall in the Hope Building where his portrait, painted by William F. Draper, hangs today, Ebbert will continue to be in the background, where he felt most comfortable—wearing a jacket and tie, as always. YM