With an interest in the past, admissions dean doubles as a chronicler of local lore
Two years after receiving his medical degree, Thomas L. Lentz, M.D. ’64, made the decision, along with his wife, Judith, to leave New Haven and move to the country. They found a pre-Revolutionary War house in Killing-worth, Conn., about 40 minutes from Lentz’s job as an instructor in anatomy at the School of Medicine. (When the medical school offered him a position he decided not to pursue a residency.)
Soon everything started growing: the Lentz family, the size of their new home, the Ohio native’s involvement in his adopted community and his role at the School of Medicine, where he is now associate dean for admissions and financial aid and professor of cell biology.
On moving day the Killingworth house was “livable,” but needy. “There was a lot of work to do,” said Lentz. “It never ends.” He painstakingly restored an antique barn that was reduced to its stone foundation. He and his wife bought surrounding parcels as they became available. Today their place in the country is an 80-acre spread that requires a great deal of landscaping work, though the five sheep they raise for wool keep the grass trimmed.
Restoring a 1759 house piqued Lentz’s interest in Killingworth history. He was a founding member of the historical society and serves as historian of the Congregational Church in Killingworth. (He also is a member of the town’s land trust and an elected member of the planning and zoning commission.) In 1976 when the historical society was raising funds to restore a 19th-century schoolhouse, Lentz assembled a pamphlet of old photographs from the town that sold for $5. This year a copy sold on eBay for $180. Clearly, there is a market for vintage Killingworth images. So in another attempt to enrich the historical society, Lentz wrote A Photographic History of Killingworth, a much more ambitious project. The softcover book features more than 200 photographs along with his narrative.
Lentz said that he wrote the book “in his spare time,” a curious choice of words for a man with teaching responsibilities, his own research interests and a passionate commitment to selecting applicants who will be not only exceptional physicians, but also leaders in their profession. “It never gets old and stale, because there’s always something new,” Lentz said of his interactions with students and applicants. “These kids are doing such amazing things that it’s really exciting to talk with them. I wish I could take them all.”
The typical applicant has changed since Lentz began serving on the admissions committee in 1968. Today many arrive at the medical school with postcollege experience working in health care as well as authorship of one or more scientific articles. Lentz wondered whether the medical school would accept him today.
“We went to college, we majored in biology, maybe we belonged to the premed club. We worked summers as an orderly in a hospital. We might have worked a semester in the lab,” Lentz said.
Lentz is particularly suited to admissions as “one of the staunchest sup-porters of the Yale System,” said James D. Jamieson, M.D., Ph.D., professor and past chair of cell biology. “It’s been a joy to work with him, because I’ve learned so much from him.”
Jamieson is impressed with Lentz’s low-key style in the lab and classroom. With some students coming from humanities backgrounds, Lentz’s thorough, methodical teaching of histology leaves each student excellently prepared, said Jamieson. Lentz fine-tunes lectures he has given literally hundreds of times, added Jamieson, to incorporate new information and increase his effectiveness.
While Lentz’s students still spend time bent over traditional microscopes, his lab also uses a “virtual microscope”—high-resolution scans of slides that students can view and manipulate on computer screens. The new technology makes it easier for students to work together and with faculty, as everyone is viewing the same image simultaneously.
The soft-spoken professor is slow to speak about his own accomplishments but quick to talk about his department, which began as a section in 1973 under the leadership of Rockefeller University scientist George E. Palade, M.D., who would win a Nobel Prize two years later. In addition to pursuing his own research on primitive nervous systems, structure-function relationships of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor and, more recently, the entry and transport of rabies virus in neurons, Lentz serves as the department’s historian—he stores departmental photographs and papers and wrote a history of cell biology at Yale for the department website.
The history of his department and of the School of Medicine itself is palpable in Lentz’s office. He rescued from the garbage the chair he offers to visitors. It belonged to Thomas R. Forbes, Ph.D., who came to Yale in 1945. Forbes eventually became the Ebenezer K. Hunt Professor of Anatomy and chaired the admissions committee throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Lentz had sat in that chair for his own admissions interview. It gives him a good deal of pleasure to offer the chair to accomplished hopefuls today. “They inspire me,” he said.