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PRSonally Speaking
Tuesday, August 7, 2012
The Physician as an Educator
by Devra Becker, MD
The Educator’s Series has a special place in the journal. As a special topic, the articles are more thorough in their treatment of their subject than space-restricted Letters to the Editor or Editorials. Topics range from teaching styles to optimizing student experience—though the topics all relate to education, they remind me a little of The Talk of the Town series of the New Yorker: research-based short articles on topics of interest to the authors. The Educator’s Series features physicians grappling with the best way to identify the educational needs of residents, to become better teachers, and to use to data to improve education of our students.
It is high school teachers of literature, rather than physicians, who have captured Hollywood’s imagination as the great educators of our time. English teachers of film are creative, they are unorthodox, and they educate by integrating the intellectual and sensorial aspects of literature to allow their students to learn and grow. Physicians may be brilliant, they may connect with their patients, and they may be healers, but as great educators—well, that’s just not really how society sees us. Are you not surprised? You should be.
In 1896, the first woman to earn a doctorate of medicine in Italy graduated from the University of Rome. It could not have been easy. And although the study of medicine is never easy, her path must have felt particularly isolated. Though she had excelled as a child in mathematics and sciences, her decision to pursue medicine was met with derision and discouragement. Her father made it clear he did not support her decision, and the leadership of the University of Rome tried to dissuade her when she approached them with her interest. When she did enroll in 1890, there was no “go-make-me-proud” send-off from her family, or stately announcement of diversity from the University.
So she went, and studied. After two years, she earned the qualifications to go on to study medicine formally. Still, she encountered bigotry and resistance. She was barred from performing cadaver dissections with the other students—out of concerns that it was immodest—and dissected after the other students had finished, alone and late at night. There was no Ridley Scott to cast a McCool to give her an encouraging speech when she was down.
And yet, she excelled. Despite the harassment and segregation, she attained academic distinctions, and went on to study pediatrics and psychiatry after receiving her medical degree. She worked with disabled children, and began to publish—even then, one had to publish—her observations and findings. The children she worked with were not considered educable, but she approached it as an empirical question, rather than a fact. She approached it as a scientist—she observed, she hypothesized, and she tested. Her conclusions and approaches were evidence based.
Of course, the fairy tale did not end there. The Italian Ministry of Education rejected her approach to education, and she was made to work in shocking conditions with the most underprivileged children in the slums of Rome.
She persisted. Based on her evidence, she integrated sensory experience in her education. She created sandpaper letters so that her students could use touch to learn reading. She used pink cubes of varying sizes to use visual and tactile cues to teach the concepts of large and small, and rank order of size. And—my personal favorite—she used the binomial cube representing (a+b)3 to use visual and tactile cues to teach math concepts.

The binomial cube is a cube that has the following pieces: one red cube, three black and red prisms, three black and blue prisms, and one blue cube. The pieces are stored in a box with two hinged opening sides. The color pattern of the cube is painted all around the outside of the box (except the bottom).

In her lifetime, she saw the spread of her educational method throughout Europe and overseas. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times before her death in 1952. Today, Maria Montessori’s educational methods can be seen schools throughout the world. Independent Montessori schools are thriving. Her name is a household word.
In surgery, we have not drifted far from those educational roots. We assess, we observe, and while our orthophrenic students face different challenges than Maria Montessori’s, her approach—using the scientific method, and integrating sensory experience in education—is mirrored in our approach to education.
It is our medical legacy.
About the Blog

Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery

PRSonally Speaking is the official blog of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, the journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Visit our blog for exclusive previews of and discussions on hot topics in plastic surgery as well as insider-tips on open access content. PRSonally Speaking is now powered by frequent contributions from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons’ Young Plastic Surgeons Forum (YPS); these practicing plastic surgeons provide the personal side of the plastic surgery story, from daily challenges to unique insights. PRSonally Speaking is home to lively, civil debate on hot topics and great discussions pertaining to our field. So, bookmark us, subscribe to the RSS feed and join in the on-going conversation with Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. This is your Journal; have fun, be respectful, get engaged and interact with the PRS community.

The views and recommendations of guest contributors do not necessarily indicate official endorsements or opinions of the Journal, PRS, or the ASPS. All views are those of the authors and the authors alone.


Anureet K. Bajaj, MD is a practicing plastic surgeon in Oklahoma City. She completed residency and fellowship in 2004, had a brief stint in academia at the University of Cincinnati, and then chose to join her father (Paramjit Bajaj MD, also a practicing plastic surgeon) in private practice in OKC, where she focuses on breast reconstruction and general cosmetic surgeries.

Devra B. Becker, MD, FACS, is an Assistant Professor of Plastic Surgery in the Department of Plastic Surgery at University Hospitals/Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio. She completed Plastic Surgery residency at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and completed fellowships with Daniel Marchac and with Bahman Guyuron. She currently has a primarily reconstructive practice.

Henry C. Hsia, MD, FACS is at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey and also holds an appointment at Princeton University.  When he’s not working hard trying to be a good father and husband, he runs a practice focused on reconstructive surgery and wound care as well as a research lab focused on wound biology and regenerative medicine.

Stephanie K. Rowen, MD is a senior physician at The Permanente Medical Group in San Jose, California.  She joined TPMG upon finishing residency and a hand surgery fellowship in 2005.  She has a primarily reconstructive practice, about 50% hand surgery.  Outside of work she enjoys participating in triathlons and spending time with her family.

Jon Ver Halen, MD is currently Chief of plastic surgery, Baptist Cancer Center; Research member, Vanderbilt- Ingram Cancer Center; Adjunct clinical faculty, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. He also acts as Program Director for the plastic surgery microvascular surgery fellowship. His practice focuses on oncologic reconstruction.

Tech Talk Bloggers

Adrian Murphy is a plastic surgery trainee in London, England. He studied medicine in Dublin, Ireland and has trained in Ireland, Boston, MA and the United Kingdom. He is a self-confessed geek and gadget aficionado.

Ash Patel, MD is Assistant Professor of Plastic Surgery and Associate Program Director at Albany Medical College, in Albany NY. His practice is primarily reconstructive.