Chapter 01: An Early Interest in Medicine: Seeking a Well-Rounded Liberal Education

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Chapter 01: An Early Interest in Medicine: Seeking a Well-Rounded Liberal Education

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Dr. Alexanian begins this chapter with some comments about his family background, and the family's focus on education. Dr. Alexanian explains that he wanted to be a physician form the time he was a child, motivated by his illness and exposure to doctors, and by his mother's stories of his great uncle, who was a famous dental surgeon. Next, Dr. Alexanian talks about his undergraduate experience at Dartmouth College. Dr. Alexanian explains that he wanted a broad, liberal arts program during college because he believed that the well-educated physician is a well-educated human being, sensitive to society and able to contribute to society beyond his medical sphere.

Identifier

Alexanian_R_20140415_S01

Publication Date

4-15-2014

Publisher

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

City

Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The Interview Subject's Story - Educational Path; Educational Path; Personal Background; Inspirations to Practice Science/Medicine; Influences from People and Life Experiences

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 A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

+ So why don't we just start with some general background, and let me ask you when you were born and where, and where you grew up.

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

Yes. Well, I was born in Queens in New York in 1932.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

What's your birth date?

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

June 8, 1932. My father was a grocer, and we moved to different-as a child I was moved with my family to different neighborhoods in Manhattan and the Bronx, and I was raised in the Bronx in a, you could say, lower-middle-class neighborhood and went to public high school, DeWitt Clinton High School, which was a large boys' high school. I was successful there so that I was also fairly active in high school, volunteering for many jobs, and I was also a member of the Honor Society and secretary of the Honor Society and then-

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

Was anyone else in your family interested in the sciences?

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

Yes. My mother's father, my grandfather, was a physician who was of Armenian extraction, born in Turkey, but was chosen to be among a small group of young men who were educated in the United States to some degree, so that he returned to Turkey as a specialist in obstetrics, and was drafted into the Turkish Army in the First World War and spared from the persecution of the Armenians because of his status as a surgeon, and managed to save his family from the genocide of Armenians by just fortuitous circumstances, so that my mother, who was then about thirteen, and her family were saved and then eventually immigrated to Philadelphia, where my grandfather was a physician and then-

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

That's an amazing story to have in your background.

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

Yes.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

Was that inspiring for you, and did that influence your decision-

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

I think it did. Let's see. I think perhaps also at the age of three I developed polio and so had some handicap and was unable to be as physically active as my peers, but I was able to be somewhat active in terms of being swim team and other kind of non-running activities. My mother was also very motivated toward education of her children as a way of moving up in our society, so that I was a good student and volunteer, and so found myself at Dartmouth College, which was a, I guess-

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

How did you end up going there?

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

A leap forward from a public high school in the Bronx, as you can imagine.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

Yeah, no kidding. How did you make the decision to go there? How did that work out?

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

Well, in those days you applied to a mixture of colleges, as you do now, I assume, and I guess I had a good record and good recommendations.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

Were there any teachers who helped you along the way or kind of mentored you?

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

Well, I think almost all. I had very good teachers, because in our Honor Society cadre at this large public high school we had some of the best teachers in the school, who were all New York bred and raised, so that we were encouraged to apply to the best colleges if possible.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

Did they identify you as a person-I mean, did you have an intention when you went to college that you were going to become a physician? When did that interest start?

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

Yes. I think that interest started very early in high school.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

Did it? Okay. Why?

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

Well, I had been exposed to my own personal illness that required regular doctor visits and physical therapy, and I guess my mother's motivation to emulate her father. I also had a great-uncle who was a somewhat famous dental surgeon. His name was Kazanjian, K-a-z-a-n-j-i-a-n, who was a First World War pioneer in reconstructive maxillofacial surgery and was given an award by the king of England-

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

Oh, wow.

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

-and other things at that time, because he was based at a British military facility and there all kinds of horrible face traumas that were sent to him for working out methods to make a new face. I'm not that familiar with his work, but there have been books written about his work and activity.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

So those are two pretty amazing figures from your past, your grandfather and your great-uncle.

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

Yes. Right.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

And your grandfather's name is?

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

His name was Bynderian, B-y-n-d-e-r-i-a-n.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

And his first name?

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

Nishan, N-i-s-h-a-n.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

Great. Thank you.

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

As you can recognize, they're Armenian names, because they end in i-a-n.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

Yes. Do you have a strong sense of yourself as an Armenian American?

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

Not so much. Not as much as my parents. My mother and father were very-it was very important to them to have assimilation in American society, so that she contradicted my father's preference to study Armenian at the school and says, "Well, we don't have time for that. He has to learn his English and other things," and so on. So-

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

Yeah, it's interesting how different immigrant families sort of dealt with that whole issue differently.

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

Yeah. So I think a lot of that was inspiring and-

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

So you said when you went to college you had the intention of becoming a physician.

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

Yes

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

So tell me about your college experience.

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

Well, I think I had a full experience. A college like Dartmouth is a very absorbing place where everyone is part of an academic and social kind of environment which has all kinds of sports and social life and academics, in a small village in New Hampshire, as you may know. I don't know if you visited there. You're somewhat isolated, and in those days, there were all men, and so it was also a very important growth experience, which you might call-what do they call that when teenagers develop, go through an initiation into adulthood? I forget the term. So it was a very good experience.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

What were the classes that you took that began to make you feel you were evolving into the person that you would become professionally?

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

Well, from the very beginning, I felt it was very important to have a broad liberal arts education, so I was very happy that there were requirements for English, social studies, language, history, in addition to the scientific requirements.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

Why did you believe that?

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

I guess in high school I was imbued with the idea that the well-educated person should be educated in as many areas as possible as he's able to absorb, in terms of music, philosophy, literature, history, so that I sort of was motivated that way and throughout my life have continued to study and read. I read books and history and things like that. I feel I guess I was maybe somewhat old-fashioned, but that the well-educated physician is a well-educated person and sensitive to society and has to contribute to society in more ways than his medical work, that we live in an imperfect world that will always be imperfect, and that we should do whatever we can to improve it. So that has been sort of my creed. (laughs)

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

No, that's lovely. (laughs)

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

Well, it's kept me comfortable. My wife puts up with it and she helps me with it. (laughter) She volunteers with the homeless and all that, so it's something to do.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

Yeah. Well, it's interesting, because, I mean, in the course of interviewing people, I discover, you know, sort of pockets of interesting-there are a number of physicians who create art, for example. They have different dimensions of their lives that round out the science, the science focus. Others are very uniformly focused on science or clinical work, so that there are different ways of constructing that way of being.

Raymond Alexanian, MD:

That's right. Sure.

Chapter 01: An Early Interest in Medicine: Seeking a Well-Rounded Liberal Education

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