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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

The Achievement of Dean Berry

By Andrew T. Weil

Andrew T. Weil '63 ('64), formerly editor-in-chief of The Harvard Review and a member of the CRIMSON editorial board, is now a first-year student at Harvard Medical School.

When George Packer Berry steps down as Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the end of this academic year, he will have completed sixteen years of a memorable Harvard tenure. James Bryant Conant called his 1949 appointment of Berry "the best job ever did on the administrative side while president of Harvard." And last year, President Pusey said: Rarely, in all Harvard's history has a department of the University contributed so much to advance the causes it serves as has the Harvard Medical School during its years under Dr. Berry."

The virtues of the man who has drawn this extraordinary praise are not those which endear old Masters to generations of House members. In fact, Dean Berry has been a rather remote figure at the Medical School Quadrangle on Longwood Avenue in Roxbury. His contacts with students are minimal; his associations with Faculty men are often highly formal; and the great amount of time he spends away from the School is something of a standing joke.

Berry has few opportunities to attend to the personal duties of a dean for two reasons: first, he is an administrator who insists on doing everything important himself (and the number of important things to be done in running a leading medical school is exceedingly great); second, he has taken upon himself the staggering task of helping to adapt medical education on an era of scientific revolution.

Berry best stated his own concern with medical education at a 50th anniversary dinner of the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, two years ago: "In looking ahead from the vantage point of 1963, at a moment in time when medicine is caught up in the scientific revolution that medicine itself has so largely stimulated, a major question confronting all of us in this: 'How can medicine best marshal for the benefit of mankind the remendous output of new knowledge flowing from the medical sciences?'"

The problem is far from simple. In the past twenty years, the life sciences have undergone breathtaking changes, and much of the basic research that has come out of this "New Biology" is directly applicable to medicine. Physicians once considered themselves "healers"--that is, something akin to artists--not scientists; today, they cannot afford to ignore findings in molecular biology or biochemestry, even if the discoveries look like "pure science" with no practical value. (As Berry has phrased it, "Tomorrow comes out of the laboratory, not out of the clinic....")

As one may imagine, increasing specialization in all fields of scientific inquiry has made adequate communication among researchers, educators, and clinicians nearly impossible. In fact, at most medical schools, the teaching staff is rigidly divided into a "preclinical faculty" (the anatomists, biochemists, neurophysiologists, and so forth who usually pursue basic research) and a "clinical faculty" (the practicing physicians associated with a school's teaching hospitals). Strict affiliation with one's department or teaching hospital is so much the rule, that in many universities, a man on the faculty of medicine has no contact whatever with a colleague in the biology department under a faculty of arts and sciences, even when the two are working on the same scientific problem. How is the dean of a medical faculty to reconcile this state of affairs with the obvious need for collaboration, especially when he believes strongly, as Berry does, that "teaching, research, and care of patients constitute an indivisible triad"?

One possibility is to persuade the farthest-flung components of a medical school--its teaching hospitals--to work more closely with the school, itself. Berry has done just this, despite the many trials involved in pulling together long-separate institutions. In 1956, he established the Harvard Medical Center, a corporation formed by the Harvard Medical School and seven of its teaching hospitals"... to improve and advance the knowledge, practice, and teaching of medicine...; to assist in the advancement of medical research and investigation and in the improvement of medical teaching facilities...." Berry, himself, is president of the corporation's Board of Trustees. Among the Center's participating hospitals are the Massachusetts General, Children's and Peter Bent Brigham--all world-famous. Yoking them into formal association has led to increased cooperation and interdisciplinary effort on the parts of staff members. It has also strengthened Harvard medicine greatly.

Concepts like "unity," "collaboration," and "interdisciplinary work" figure prominently in Berry's writings and speeches. "The whole Medical Center," he says, "is based on the simple belief that in union there is strength." Berry is much given to using analogies to illustrate his points, and one of his favorites is the comparison of the Faculty of Medicine to a symphony orchestra. "In both groups you have many people playing many different parts, and in both, greatness amounts to the totality of 'orchestration.'" Unshakable faith in the idea that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts has led Berry to work toward other consolidations beyond the Harvard Medical Center. Most exciting of his projects, perhaps, is the just-dedicated Count-way Library of Medicine, the largest University affiliated medical library in the world. It is the first of a series of fully-automated regional scientific reference collections, through which anyone will be able to locate and obtain any scientific reference within minutes.

Although today he is a full-time administrator, Berry is still an active member of the Faculty of Medicine (he is professor of Bacteriology), and, in the past, he has done significant research of his own. After receiving an A.B. degree with highest honors in biology from Princeton in 1921, he went on to Johns Hopkins Medical School where he finished second in his class in 1925. (Interestingly enough, his successor to the deanship, Robert H. Ebert, is another "outsider": A.B. and M.D. both from the University of Chicago.) After further training at Johns Hopkins, Berry moved to the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City. In 1932, he became professor of Bacteriology, head of the department of Bacteriology, and associate professor of Medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.

During these early years in medicine, Berry investigated the mechanisms of virus infection, and made important contributions to our knowledge of such ailments as yellow fever, encephalitis, and psittacosis (parrot fever). He was much interested in viruses as possible causative agents of cancer (a theory that is now gaining the support of experimental evidence), and he was the first to demonstrate that a virus causing one disease can be changed into a virus causing a related but distinct disease.

In 1947, Berry became Associate Dean of the Rochester school. Dur- ing his stay at the University of Rochester he slowly became involved with the problem of medical education and had to forego much of his research. By 1949, his interest in education had brought him to the attention of many university administrators; so it was that President Conant in that year offered him his present job. Convinced by Conant that "Harvard furnishes an excellent vantage point from which to make a contribution to American education," Berry accepted.

Sixteen years later, he is a busy man, with a gracious manner, tremendous enthusiasm for Medical School projects, a love for explaining his ideas, and very little time. He considers the "pleasantest feature" of all those years to be "my colleagues, treatment of me as a colleague, not

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