THE DOCTOR'S DOCTOR: A BIOGRAPHY OF EUGENE A. STEAD, JR., M.D. John Laszlo, MD, and Francis A. Neelon, MD Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2006, 346 pp., $50.00 (hardcover).
This is an admiring but not hagiographic life of a distinctive figure in American medicine, written by two of his acolytes. The authors of this biography fulfill their intention, and their work allows us to comprehend a man who was hard to know.
Eugene Stead made his mark in the mid-20th century, a time when great men (and these individuals were almost all male) crafted great careers as leaders in teaching, research, and patient care, and achieved great fame. Stead's students and colleagues led arduous lives and felt rewarded, because "Stead was the person to whom competent professors and students and residents turned when they got stuck on a problem [and because of ] his message, his approach to the educational process, his single-minded insistence upon excellence." He was a critical, ambitious, and competitive man, a physician who created one of our country's finest departments of medicine at Duke University, one of the towering figures who led the field in the 1950s and 1960s, a type of era unlikely to appear again.
During his time
There was not yet the proliferation of deans, or layers of hospital bureaucrats regulating bed occupancy, patient turnover, and financial bottom lines-goals often achieved at the expense of learning, service, and even honesty. (p. ix)
He became a famous man, but his view was "I've always said I wouldn't walk across the street for fame." I chose to review this biography because, as a next generation physician, I knew of him. To me and to my contemporaries he was a figure to admire. But what is fame? Eugene Stead's son, William W. Stead, says: "He's terribly correct about the fleeting nature of fame ; most of present day people at the [Duke] Medical Center don't know who he is. That is unbelievable to me and yet so it is." Few people active in medicine today remember the name, a phenomenon I confirmed by polling 10 consecutive physician colleagues, asking each, "Who is or was Eugene Stead?" The results are as follows:
52 Never heard of him
59 I don't know
62 I don't know
51 I don't know
40 I don't know
42 I don't know
55 No, I don't know
37 No idea
55 Don't know
68 Former head of the NIH*
* incorrect, but at least he knew the name
Eugene Stead was born in 1908 in Atlanta, one of five children of a father who strove to support his family by means of brains, grit, determination, and strict adherence to Evangelical Christian belief; and a mother from a wealthier background, well educated, the source of books in the home and a devotion to learning. Overt bigotry was not tolerated, but it's evident in this text that through most of his life Stead held characteristic paternalistic Southern views about black people.
During his college years at Emory University, Stead almost by chance found a paid position as a biology lab assistant. As a lonely and isolated person with few friends, he found it to his liking to work long hours. "Time simply evaporated as he was drawn deeper and deeper into the new world that Biology was opening up."
My mother had great respect for the medical profession.... My father, on the other hand, was perturbed by biology. He was smart enough to know that if the theory of evolution was really correct, the fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible would have to go.... I never tried to talk my father out of his beliefs; I simply didn't discuss issues I knew would make him uncomfortable. (p. 19)
Stead's medical student years at Emory University School of Medicine (1928-32) and the 7 years of postgraduate training that followed refined the external shape that he presented to the world. However, as the reader learns, the basic man remained unchanged: demanding, determined, unsentimental, a man who developed and sustained the highest professional standards of integrity and accepted nothing less. …