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Edward B. Schlesinger 1913-1997

By Nicholas P. Christy '51

This series, Faculty Remembered, features profiles of former faculty members at P&S. The author of the series is a 1951 P&S graduate and former professor of medicine. He is now special lecturer in medicine and writer-in-residence at P&S.

Dr. Schlesinger
Dr. Schlesinger
Edward Schlesinger chaired the P&S Department of Neurological Surgery from 1973 to 1981. He excelled as investigator, clinician, teacher, and leader. A calm, modest, unostentatious man, he made a major impact on his department, on CPMC at large, and on American neurosurgery. Seemingly without extraordinary effort, he managed to accomplish all this because his character and personality were harmoniously integrated with his professional life.

Dr. Schlesinger’s association with P&S and the Neurological Institute spanned more than 50 years. Graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1934 with a B.A. degree, he entered its medical school, where, in his first year, he demonstrated what was to be his life-long interest in research by working in the laboratory of the famous neurophysiologist Detlev Bronk. He received his M.D. degree in 1938, interned for two years at Hartford Hospital, served as neurosurgical resident at NI from 1940 to 1943, and studied neuropathology at the Mayo Clinic. After gaining further clinical experience as an Army surgeon during World War II at hospitals in Tennessee and Washington state, he returned to NI where, typically for him, his first three years back at Columbia were devoted to research. He held the Teagle Fellowship in Neurosurgical Research in 1946-47; in the next two years he worked as research assistant and associate, studying the effects of curare and other agents on muscle spasm following spinal cord injury and other conditions (1947-49). This work occupied him well into the late 1950s and gave rise to more than 15 publications.

Dr. Schlesinger was appointed to the clinical staff in neurosurgery in 1949. Assumption of ward duties and the burdens of private practice did not seriously interrupt his work in the laboratory, where he continued his research. In 1949, he took charge of the medical center’s cancer research programs. Simultaneously, he began studies on the use of radioisotopes in localizing brain tumors and in evaluating physiological events within the CNS, e.g., cerebral circulation. These studies, supported by the American Cancer Society and the Hartford Foundation, were pursued into the mid-1960s; many more publications emerged from this work, enhancing his already considerable reputation as an investigator. From the early 50s up to the time he assumed the chairmanship (1973)—and even after that—Schlesinger continued to make frequent and regular contributions to the neurosurgical and neurological literature. Alone and with co-workers, he wrote on an astonishingly wide range of subjects, clinical and scientific, including case reports and a study on experimental brain tumors in dogs.

Around 1951, Dr. Schlesinger began concentrating also on what was to become his main clinical interest, diseases of the spine and spinal cord. He soon became widely known both for his diagnostic and operating skills in, for example, that bane of the middle-aged and elderly—disorders of the low back. He achieved superior skill in this field, developing a sure judgment as to when to operate and when to desist. With a colleague in neuroradiology, he defined a new clinical entity, “primary spinal stenosis,” sometimes known as the Schlesinger-Taveras syndrome.

One of his greatest achievements as a clinician is less celebrated because it is more private. In talking with patients about their illnesses, he was not only forbearing and willing to answer endless anxious questions, but he also had the uncanny ability to dispel anxieties the patient did not know he had. An informant has told the writer this anecdote: Before an elderly man was to undergo surgery for a lumbar intervertebral disc, Dr. Schlesinger gently issued this warning: “In the recovery room, you may wake up with a catheter in place. This does not mean that we’ve severed your spinal cord and that you’re now impotent and unable to urinate and things like that. I’d just be taking a precaution: I don’t want the nurses to have to call some neurosurgical resident—maybe not so good at catheterizing—in the middle of the night . . .” Good for the patient to know in advance.

This skill in communicating served Dr. Schlesinger well as a teacher, especially of residents, who revered him. They came to see him as a serious, honest, meticulous, thoughtful mentor. His way of addressing the house staff was the same as his way of talking to patients and colleagues: deliberate, careful, entirely open, entirely without “flash” or self-importance. In the jargon of today, what you saw is what you got, so that the house staff never doubted Dr. Schlesinger’s absolute trustworthiness.

As department chairman, he had two main aims: to obtain more research space for the staff and to greatly increase the emphasis on house staff training. In both, he succeeded. A measure of that success may be seen in the fact that, long after Dr. Schlesinger’s “official” retirement in 1981, residents continued to visit him in his P&S office on the fifth floor—for advice, instruction, comfort, or just to talk. Another measure of his success as leader of his department is that he was invited to stay on to the age of 68—three years after the standard “mandatory” retirement age: The administration knew it had a good man and wished to keep him in place as long as the rules would allow.

During the 16 years of his retirement—1981 to 1997—Dr. Schlesinger worked daily in his office and in the library, continuing to write. His principal interests were the genetics of neurological disease and of Marfan’s syndrome. He amused himself by writing biographical sketches of his famous predecessors, e.g., Byron Stookey and Tracy Putnam, among others. Over and above his versatility, clinical wisdom, and self-restraint, one more quality needs to be described—his humanism: This means not only his notable humaneness but also his humanistic scholarship. He seemed to have read everything. His literary interests were so broad as to surpass belief. He possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of English poetry and was an authority on Robert Graves, a relatively obscure poet to most of us. He thought of writing a play about a man he had met in the Army. All of this learning he wore lightly and gracefully. When he died suddenly at age 83, Columbia lost a man of integrity, a whole man.

The writer acknowledges the help of Dr. Edgar M. Housepian, Department of Neurological Surgery; Dr. George H. McCormack Jr., Department of Medicine; P&S archivists; Evelyn Smith, administrator of the Department of Neurological Surgery; and, especially, Dr. Schlesinger’s widow.
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