I have been fortunate to have many good mentors in my life and career, starting with my father. He taught me the most about life and people and instilled in me an ethic of kindness, forgiveness, and enjoying what one has rather than envying what others have. I have, sad to say, not lived up to his standards at times, but in general I have done my best to do so.
Like many of my colleagues, I have had professional mentors many times as I traveled through education and training, and as a physician and scientist. Each had a different degree of influence on my career and career choices. I shall describe a few mentors early in my career and how they influenced me.
The first was Dr. James Campbell, who was the head of medicine at Presbyterian-St. Luke's Hospital in Chicago, where I did my residency in internal medicine. One day, I was walking from the parking lot to the hospital and happened to join him as we walked. He asked how I was doing and I told him I was interested in research. He said, “‘research’ means “re-search,” so your research starts in the library and other sources.” That wise and effective tactic stayed with me.
Other mentors in my fellowship at the University of Illinois in Chicago helped me learn to write papers, make the most of national meetings, and learn the standards of success in our field. Dr. Irving Schulman was the chair of pediatrics and a famous hematologist.
But another colleague only five years older than me had even more influence on my career and my life: Dr. Charles Abildgaard was (and still is) a California Renaissance man. He was an excellent doctor and clinical investigator despite the fact that he was as close to being a hippie as possible in his position: shaggy beard, Volkswagen Beetle (Schulman called it a Nazi car), and a social and political liberal; it was the 1960s, after all.
He was an avid cook and gardener as well as a painter and sculptor. We became good friends and he took me under his wing. He bought me my first sushi and other foods that were not yet broadly popular. And he was a major factor in my going to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
St. Jude was trying to recruit hematologists at that time, so Charley visited. He said it was a great place but he decided he wanted to go home to California. He also told me I ought to look at the job at St. Jude, which I did. I took the job right out of training and it changed my life in many ways.
But the most influential mentor in my professional life was Dr. Donald Pinkel. At age 34, Donald was named the founding director of St. Jude in 1961. At the time he had been the first head of pediatrics at Roswell Park (his home town) for five years. He was an effective recruiter, and in time we became good friends and colleagues.
Donald taught me all I know about cancer. He was very generous with his time and he knew the literature better than most people in those days. He was an excellent clinical investigator and taught me how to write a good protocol that was likely to provide useful information. He was a stickler for precise language and clarity, and most of all he wanted the protocols to address a really important issue in the care of children with cancer.
He was at the top of his game when his role was that of a pioneer. He built the department of pediatrics from scratch at Roswell Park, and St. Jude was under construction when he accepted the job. He was the first employee of St. Jude. He laid a remarkable foundation of standards for patient care and research at St. Jude that influence its activities even today.
Donald started the “Total Therapy” series of studies for children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and was very generous in letting us junior investigators become responsible for the analysis and development of those studies. It was that gift that made my career. I was invited to speak at national meetings and around the world. I owe that success to him.
But there is one bit of mentoring by Donald that I remember most fondly. He left St. Jude in 1973 and 10 years later I was appointed the third director. He was very supportive and when I called him I asked if he had any advice to offer me. His response surprised me, but it too changed my life in subtle and not so subtle ways.
He said that I should take time to think in my new job. That I should schedule thinking time in my office because in that position one's time gets all gobbled up by events and people and urgencies and deadlines leaving no time for contemplation.
I liked the idea. So I scheduled two hours twice a week on my non-clinic days that my secretary could not fill without my permission. I told her I wanted peace and quiet for those times, unless there was a fire or other catastrophe. It took me a while to use the time fruitfully. I began thinking ahead of those days about problems or issues that I was dealing with. I got to the point where I could focus deeply on the issue and either come to a resolution or develop a discreet plan for resolution.
At times I doodled or got distracted by papers on my desk, but the time became more and more productive, though not always. Eventually, I did this for only one day a week and finally, my secretary and I got pretty good at “finding time to think,” so I managed to keep it up more informally as time went on. I found that problems were easier to solve or at least address when one has a block of time dedicated to it, rather than addressing it only in time of crisis.
So Donald's seemingly simple suggestion changed the way I worked and helped make me more efficient and effective—now that is powerful mentoring.
Thanks again, Donald.