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An international traveler makes himself at home in the world’s great libraries

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2009 - Spring


Wherever Stanley Simbonis, M.D. ’57, travels, he visits the local library. If it’s Athens, you’ll find him in the Gennadius Library at the American School of Classical Studies, or the archeological library at the British School at Athens, where he reads about the origins of language and writing. This research, of course, occurs after his annual six-week course in the Greek language at the University of Athens.

“The library is the heart and soul of the university,” said Simbonis, who is, not surprisingly, a trustee of the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library. “It’s the guts of the university, the crown jewel. How can you do without it? It’s been a storehouse of knowledge throughout the ages.”

If it hadn’t been for libraries, Simbonis might never have made it to the School of Medicine.

Born in Manhattan in 1928 to emigrants from Greece, Simbonis lived in a tenement apartment in the Bronx with his mother and brother; his father died when he was 8. Simbonis loved to look at the handful of books in his home until he discovered the public library on Washington Avenue; then he started to read everything from Churchill to calculus. At 13, when he finished school for the day, he wandered into the libraries and classrooms of Fordham University, where a chemistry professor allowed him to sit in on classes.

Simbonis’ junior high school science teacher steered him to the Bronx High School of Science, which still enjoys a reputation as one of the best college preparatory high schools in the country. He grew restless, however, in part because the school had no sports or even a gym at that time, and he dropped out at age 16.

“My original dream was to be a center fielder for the Yankees and then I tried to become a musician,” he recalled. “Medicine was my third choice.”

In the 1940s, trying out for a professional baseball team did not require an agent or experience. Simbonis just showed up at Yankee Stadium. He also took a crack at the Dodgers. Neither team hired him, so he knocked on doors all along Broadway to audition as a big band drummer. “I could barely keep a beat,” he said. He did, however, meet bandleaders Louis Prima and Harry James.

Still uncertain of his career path, he took on three menial jobs, delivering newspapers on Wall Street at 5 a.m., running mail for a ship’s broker and washing dishes at the Horn & Hardart automat. “The dishwashing really woke me up,” Simbonis said. “I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here? It’s obvious that I have to go to school.’ The GI Bill sounded pretty good.”

Simbonis enlisted in the Marine Corps on September 2, 1945, the day the Japanese surrendered to the Allied forces, and began to pursue his high school equivalency degree. Because he took more than a dozen of the academic classes the Marines offered, he was called to the Marine Corps school in Washington, D.C., to teach English.

Simbonis planned to go to Columbia University and live at home after leaving the service, but his mother had remarried and moved to New Haven. He followed her to the city and enrolled in Yale College. Simbonis lived off campus above the Sisk Funeral Home on Howe Street, where he earned $25 a month and a free apartment for answering the telephone in the middle of the night. He majored in zoology and earned his undergraduate degree in 1953.

Simbonis then entered the School of Medicine, where he took an interest in pathology because it allowed time for research. After graduating he worked in the New York University lab of biochemist Severo Ochoa, M.D., who won the 1959 Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology for his discovery of an enzyme that can synthesize RNA. “Ochoa was brilliant, but also fun-loving,” Simbonis remembered. “He bought a red sports car with his prize money.”

After stops at Columbia University and Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, N.J., Simbonis settled down at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Paterson, N.J., where he became chair of pathology. He retired in 1992 but remains an associate clinical professor of pathology at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, where he still audits classes.

Teaching, he said, was his greatest contribution to pathology. “I hope I was able to convey to students how to examine slides and specimens, and then think fiercely on how to synthesize the material at hand to arrive at reasonable conclusions,” Simbonis recalled. “It wasn’t an easy task but it was really worth the effort.”

Since 1975 Simbonis has lived in a historic brownstone in Greenwich Village, where he is active in neighborhood preservation. Divorced, he has no children. He travels widely and owns an apartment in Athens. He also has a vacation home on Fire Island, N.Y., which he has willed to the School of Medicine. The home will be sold upon his death and the proceeds divided between the library and a scholarship to be set up in his name. It will be a fitting gift from a lover of libraries.

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