Chapter 01: Lessons from Family and the Liberal Arts

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Chapter 01: Lessons from Family and the Liberal Arts

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In this chapter, Dr. Gutterman talks about growing up in a small South Dakota town, and the "amazing training" he received by accompanying his mother on her habitual visits to shut ins and ill neighbors. He also reflects on his own character and the faceted approach he brings to medicine and science, given his broad interests in religion and philosophy (both of which he studied in college).

Identifier

GuttermanJ_01_20120412_C01

Publication Date

4-12-2012

Publisher

The Historical Resources Center, The Research Medical Library, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

City

Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The Interview Subject's Story - Personal Background; Personal Background; Inspirations to Practice Science/Medicine; Influences from People and Life Experiences; Character, Values, Beliefs, Talents; Human Stories; Offering Care, Compassion, Help; Faith

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Disciplines

History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Oncology | Oral History

Transcript

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

All right. We are formally recording. I am Tacey Ann Rosolowski interviewing Dr. Jordan Gutterman at his office in the Research Park at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. This interview is being conducted for the Making Cancer History Voices Oral History Project run by the Historical Resources Center at MD Anderson. Dr. Gutterman is a professor and section chief of the Department of Systems Biology at MD Anderson. This is the first of our planned sessions together. Today is April 12, 2012, and the time is about twenty minutes after 1:00. And thank you, Dr. Gutterman, for participating in this oral history.

Jordan Gutterman, MD:

You’re welcome. You’re welcome.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

This is a followup to a series of interviews conducted with Dr. James Olson and Lesley Brunet in 2004 and 2006. And during those interviews, you went into detail about the startup of your work on interferon. So I’m going to be asking you to fill in some gaps and then continue that story as well as move into some areas of reflection about the institution of MD Anderson and many other subjects also.  

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

But first—for the record—I just wanted to ask you a few basic background questions. If you could tell me where you were born and when and where you grew up.

Jordan Gutterman, MD:

Well, I was born in a little town in the southeast corner of South Dakota called Flandreau—Flandreau, South Dakota—a little farming community. My dad was a Russian immigrant, and my mother was a native of Ohio—both of Jewish extraction. My father ran a general store in that time. They went there in the twenties. I was born in 1938—October 15, 1938.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

And that’s where you grew up—in that same community?

Jordan Gutterman, MD:

I grew up until—it was shortly past my fourteenth birthday, and then we moved in December of 1952 to Norfolk, Virginia, where I completed high school. I had just started the first semester—completed high school and then went on to schooling on the east coast.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Okay. And was anyone else in your family involved in the sciences at all?

Jordan Gutterman, MD:

No. I have a fraternal twin who is a few minutes older—I’m sorry—younger than I am. We were born, actually, different days right before midnight. He became a physician as I did—also a hematologist. But there had been no other—absolutely no other scientists in my family—either side of the family.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

And when did you know that you wanted to be a scientist or a physician?

Jordan Gutterman, MD:

Well, I’m not sure exactly. In high school I did well and everything. I studied a lot, but I didn’t find myself like—I was a late bloomer, I think, when it comes to this. In fact, I’m still kind of a late bloomer, because I am doing a lot of laboratory stuff now, which has really opened up—with the intent of going back to patients. And so it took me a while—I went to college, and I was pre-med. I think, in part, maybe because I was Jewish and I felt my parents wanted me to be a doctor—you know—the classic story. But I don’t think I was really that committed. I mean, I enjoyed—I particularly enjoyed chemistry, which is now turning out in my recent work to be extremely interesting and important. I really liked chemistry. Biology was okay then. I mean, now it’s a passion of mine. But I also majored and ended up majoring in religion and philosophy. I was in what is called the honors program at the University of Virginia, at least at that time. You actually do not go to classes. It is sort of British system, and you write papers. You still take other classes, but—I mean—pre-med classes. So I was really a major—in fact, I thought I wanted to go—mistakenly—into philosophy or something like that. But I just didn’t see a direction there. And particularly again, the chemistry—I really was intrigued by this, and so I applied to medical school. Meanwhile, I think I got more and more interested in the possibility of doing something really meaningful—that could be meaningful to me and that was to deal with healing patients. Let me digress there because I think this is important. In terms of my career here at MD Anderson and this, that, and the other, I wrote an essay a few years ago called, Rounds with Mom. In between the interferon—and I changed fields—and at some point in these tapes we’ll talk about that, but in the nineties—mid-nineties, when everybody was doing interferon and everybody was doing what are called cytokines, things got very crowded. I began to understand that I like to start things and carry them through, and the rest of it is just kind of putting the fine points around the edges. To me—I like to open up new things. I became aware of that. And I did; I started working on plants. It was completely different. But I had a period where I was starting to work in new things where—I took some creative writing courses here in Houston. Houston is really great for that. It’s a thing called Inprint, which is kind of a spin out of the University of Houston. I wrote many essays dealing with medicine and science as a doctor, as a scientist, the struggles of getting the funding, but many of them were autobiographical in terms of history—that is memory—and one was called, Rounds with Mom. When I was growing up in this little town in South Dakota—and I hope I’m not giving too much detail.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

No, this is—

Jordan Gutterman, MD:

When I was growing up—because I think you cannot talk to an individual—you know—what made that person. And those embryonic years or those nascent years are extremely important.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

This is precisely what I am interested in.

Jordan Gutterman, MD:

So my—this town had about 2500 people. My dad had the store, and my mother took care of me and my brother and my older brother, who is eight years older and became a CPA. She was very kind. She was very sensitive, even though there was no medicine in the family, to sick people, particularly, and older people—people that might live alone. She was always taking my brother and me to visit sick people or older people who are lonely. And she would bring them cookies or soup and visit and so forth. We were rather a novelty in those days. Today, now multiple births aren’t so rare, but in those days, particularly in a small town, twins were always considered a novelty. So everybody liked to see us, and it was a small town, so everybody knew everybody. And I watched her. I sat there year after year, and even into high school I would go with my mother to visit these people. I began to see diseases like multiple sclerosis over the course of three, four, five, six years. And cancer, of course, was—in fact, many of my parents’ friends over the years would get cancer, and my mother would call me. She’d say, “So-and-so was opened up, and it’s all over.” So I began to get a real direct impact of what disease was. My father was busier because he worked and owned the store, so he didn’t—usually wasn’t with us, but he always used to say to me, because I had good grades, “Just take your brain and do something with it to help these people.” So I had amazing training as a child. The reason I call it Rounds with Mom is because it was just like going on rounds in a hospital to see these sick people. And I would—you know—we were really behaved kids, and so we just sat there, maybe a little bored, maybe not. I think I observed a lot of suffering. I think that helped in college as I began to really think about going to medical school. And the more I thought about it—around my junior year—even though I was very intrigued by the liberal arts and the challenge there, I made the right choice. But it was kind of a late thing. It wasn’t something I was nine years old and read a book and said I wanted to be a scientist. It didn’t happen that way.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Well, it’s kind of a subtle—a real subtle introduction into it, you know?

Jordan Gutterman, MD:

Yeah. Yeah.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Which is neat. But I also want to ask—I mean—since you’re kind of reflecting on your own temperament and how these different influences come together, I’m wondering if as you look back you see that those interests in philosophy and religion and the liberal arts had somehow added something to your perspective as a researcher in the sciences. I mean, what do they bring?

Jordan Gutterman, MD:

Oh, there’s no doubt about that. And I think even more recently in my life—I probably won’t go into much detail right now. I came in contact with a highly religious Jewish group. It’s called Chabad, and they’re Orthodox. I’m not Orthodox. I wasn’t raised Orthodox, but as I got into the study of the Bible—the Torah and so forth—I have developed some very deep philosophical roots about what our roles are in life, goals, and accomplishments and so forth. So I really don’t—I may relax, but I don’t waste a minute because I think we’re on a—I mean—I really do have a pretty deep-seated philosophical view of what we are supposed to do in the world. I think everybody has a purpose. I really do. So I think that liberal arts education in philosophy, religion, and history did shape me tremendously because I see so much—even my interest—as I said before we started to record—in psychoanalysis and the psyche. There are so many layers that make us all. So I think it did shape me both as a physician, and also it shapes empathy, on the one hand, and also—and I do thank my mother in particular but both my parents for the same. There is a wonderful story by a Hasidic philosopher named Martin Buber—B-U-B-E-R. He wrote a wonderful essay, I thought, about when he was a child and went to his grandfather’s house in Germany. He had a pet horse, and he would bring this pet horse sugar cubes, apples, and carrots. And the horse was so happy to see him. He would pet that horse, and he said he could actually feel the love, feel the excitement. He calls his book I and Thou. That book, I read in college—now that you reminded me—I and Thou, and it’s as opposed to I and it. I think so many relationships getting worse and worse in the world in business and medicine and science are I/it relationships. I see it all the time—I to an object, it, but not another person. And of course, by saying I and thou you are putting it even at a higher level because thou has a religious or spiritual connotation. I try always to do an I/thou relationship to try to understand the person I am sitting across from, whether it’s a patient, a colleague, or whatever. There is an I/thou relationship because that person is responding all the time. And that did come out—it’s a very insightful question—it did come out of college in reading and thinking. So by the time I got to medical school—I hated, for example, anatomy. You walk in, there’s a slab, and it’s a cadaver with formaldehyde. And there were so many people that just couldn’t wait to dissect those nerves and stuff. I was completely bored out of my mind because it was a dead—it was a human being that was dead, and I hated it. I got a B, and that’s not good for me. But I couldn’t wait to finish my first semester at medical school. Histology, again, dead. Pathology is dead, you know? But by the second year of medical school, we started to see people, and then I began to blossom. Then I started to have knowledge, and I could do what my mother did with the chicken soup, so to speak. I could do with ideas and stuff, and it just kind of went from there.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Well, I am also hearing this interesting tonality—I mean—not only is there a—you know—sort of palpable sense of family in your practice as a researcher and clinician—

Jordan Gutterman, MD:

Right. Yeah.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

But there’s—it is also a philosophical practice. It is maybe a spiritual practice as well?

Jordan Gutterman, MD:

Oh yeah, very definitely. Yeah.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

So it is very rich—

Chapter 01: Lessons from Family and the Liberal Arts

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