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From music to medicine and back

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2016 - Spring


A lifelong love of jazz and a desire to care for society’s most vulnerable children have sustained Eli Newberger throughout his career.

One night last December, Scullers Jazz Club in Cambridge, Mass., was packed with national experts on child abuse, Peace Corps veterans, and book group buddies, all there to honor Eli Newberger, M.D. ’66, HS ’67, M.P.H., who sat in perhaps his favorite spot on Earth—on stage, cradling his beloved tuba.

Newberger, a renowned child abuse expert as well as a fixture in Boston’s jazz scene, was turning 75 the day after Christmas. The club added a second show to accommodate fans of his medicine and his music.

Kicking off an all-Gershwin set with his group, Eli & the Hot Six, Newberger told the crowd: “The amygdala in the brain is the center for our sensation of stress. It sets off a cascade of hormones and messages. This is also where music enters our brain.” Not your typical stage patter.

But then, Newberger’s not your typical musician or pediatrician. Both pursuits have been important to him throughout his life: In addition to establishing himself as an expert on child abuse, he has released more than 40 acclaimed jazz albums. As a pediatrician, he’s testified in prominent cases of child and sexual abuse.

His path began at Yale College, where he started in physics before switching to music theory and taking pre-med courses on the side. By the time he graduated in 1962, he’d decided to apply to medical school and do music—he’s played the tuba since he was 10—on the side. He graduated, married Carolyn Moore, a flautist from Sarah Lawrence, and the couple played with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra while he attended medical school. The two would continue to work together—for 30 years, the couple collaborated at Boston Children’s Hospital, where he was a physician chief and she was director of research and training in the Family Development Program.

After receiving his medical degree, Newberger completed an internship in internal medicine at Yale New Haven Hospital. But the Vietnam War was raging, and male doctors were required to register for the draft. The Newbergers opposed the war, so he applied to become a doctor in the Peace Corps. In 1967, the couple moved to Upper Volta in West Africa—now Burkina Faso—with their 1-month-old daughter.

Newberger’s stint in Africa included working with impoverished mothers and children, and led him to an interest in pediatrics and a residency at Boston Children’s Hospital. As a resident, he alerted the physician-in-chief about “a worrying pattern of rehospitalizations” of young patients who had been reported to child protective services. Mandated reporting laws for suspected child abuse were new, and the hospital staff wasn’t yet well trained in recognizing such abuse. Newberger was asked to find out what other hospitals were doing.

He was just 29 years old when he was asked to start a child abuse unit at Children’s Hospital. He had no experience in the field, but Newberger’s multidisciplinary team of doctors, nurses, and social workers would become a national model.

In Boston, Newberger is best known as the key prosecution witness in the trial of Louise Woodward, the British nanny convicted of second-degree murder in the death of 8-month-old Matthew Eappen in 1997. Newberger testified that Matthew was the victim of violent prolonged shaking, and that a blood clot on his brain and a fractured skull indicated that he had also been slammed against a hard surface. Newberger also offered his expertise on the effects of abuse on children and their families during the sex abuse crisis in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Today, the Newbergers are semi-retired from the health care field, but perform with Eli & the Hot Six, in which Carolyn plays the washboard. They have a second home in the Berkshires, where he writes music reviews for the online site The Berkshire Edge, and Carolyn, a gifted artist, illustrates them. The booklet that accompanies the Hot Six’s new CD, “Contemporary Classic Jazz,” features Carolyn’s real-time sketches of the performers.

The nexus of medicine and music has sustained Newberger throughout his career. Starting in 1971, he and his band had a regular Thursday night gig at a suburban Boston pub. It was the same year he started his Thursday outpatient clinic, and he’d go directly from the hospital to the pub. “I had 30 years of stress overload that was compensated by performing jazz,” he said. “The positive sensations in experiencing music are processed in the same midbrain organs as those that bring us to hyperalert in the face of severe danger. The music enabled me to do what’s most challenging—and for many physicians in child abuse work—vexatious, caring for the victims and their families, offending and unprotecting parents included.”

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