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A son of Yale and the medical school receives AYA’s highest honor

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2006 - Spring


At the end of World War II, Nicholas P.R. Spinelli, M.D. ’44, took leave from his Army unit in Germany and hitched a ride on a cargo plane to Rome. From there he traveled to Faeto, a village in southern Italy overlooking the Adriatic Sea that his parents had left 30 years earlier, where the villagers celebrated the arrival of their native son. “I was there for three nights,” Spinelli said. “I had to make rounds and visit every sick person in the village.”

His triumphant return to his family’s ancestral community was the result of his parents’ belief in education and Spinelli’s own belief in the value of his education at Yale, where he earned his undergraduate and medical degrees. Had they stayed in Italy, Spinelli said, his parents would never have been able to educate their yet-unborn children, Nicholas and his sister, Viola, M.P.H. ’65. “Education was a passion with both my parents. That was why they were working so hard,” he said.

Throughout his career Spinelli has shown his loyalty to Yale by raising money for the school, establishing with his classmates a scholarship fund, serving as the medical school’s director of alumni affairs and sponsoring the first White Coat ceremony in 1992.

In November the Association of Yale Alumni awarded Spinelli the Yale Medal, which, since 1952, has honored outstanding service to the university. In this recognition, Spinelli joins such other medical school graduates and faculty as pediatrician Grover F. Powers, M.D.; Russell B. Scobie, M.D. ’29; William L. Kissick, M.D. ’57, M.P.H. ’59, Dr.Ph. ’61; Muriel D. Wolf, M.D. ’59, HS ’60; and the legendary Dean Milton C. Winternitz, M.D.

Spinelli’s path to Yale began in Stratford, Conn., where his parents had settled. His father ran a succession of businesses, including a gas station and restaurant on the Boston Post Road, the main thoroughfare between New York and Boston.

In 1937 Spinelli entered Yale College, planning to become a writer. At the end of his freshman year, however, he took a job in a biology laboratory, where a professor encouraged him to study medicine, and in the fall of 1941 he entered the School of Medicine.

A few months later, while preparing for an anatomy exam, he heard President Roosevelt announce on the radio that the nation was at war. Spinelli and his 42 classmates were inducted into the Army, and their medical education was accelerated to meet wartime needs. Upon his discharge Spinelli returned to Stratford to practice internal medicine. A heart attack forced his retirement in 1958, but he began a second career as director of medical education at Bridgeport Hospital. In the 1980s his second career gave way to a third career as director of alumni affairs at the medical school. His main concern there was what he called “incubating alumni,” strengthening relations with students and bringing them into the fold by including them in alumni events. At that time he helped create the Committee on the Well-Being of Students, which makes a report each year on issues of concern to students.

Perhaps his greatest gift to the medical school was his proposal to his classmates at their 40th reunion in 1984. He asked them to contribute to a scholarship fund over the next decade. By then, he said, the fund would be large enough to offer its first scholarship. In 1994, with 100 percent participation from the class, the fund paid half the expenses of a first-year student. Eleven years later the fund was supporting up to three students through their first year.

“I have gotten letters from students who have been given the scholarship, saying how important it was and how they couldn’t have gone to medical school without it,” Spinelli said.

For his service to Yale, Spinelli received the Distinguished Alumni Service Award from the Association of Yale Alumni in Medicine in 1987 and the Peter Parker Medal in 1994. In recognition of his contributions to the medical school, two rooms were named in Spinelli’s honor in 2000, the medical school’s Office of Alumni Affairs and one at the Center for Neuroscience and Regeneration Research at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System in West Haven.

But no honor, he said, surpasses the first he received from the university when he was 16 years old. “The greatest gift I got was the letter saying I was accepted to Yale.”

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