The Varied Pen of Alumni News Writer Peter Wortsman

Peter Wortsman

A Q&A with Longtime P&S Alumni Association Staff Writer

By Kenneth A. Forde’59

Ken Forde: Columbia Medicine readers know you best for the alumni profiles you’ve been writing since 1987. Your profiles have become something of a P&S institution. I think our readers would like to know a little more about the writer.

Peter Wortsman: P&S alumni are a very varied and wonderful group of people. I have been privileged over the last 25 years to interview and profile some pretty extraordinary individuals, including surgeon-astronaut Story Musgrave’64; the late Nobel laureate Baruch Blumberg’51; P. Roy Vagelos’54, retired CEO of Merck; Keith Brodie’65, former president of Duke University; and the late great pediatrician and political activist Benjamin Spock’29, who set the ground rules for my generation. I’d love to bring out a book of these some day. (Links to these profiles, where available online, are listed below.)


KF: How did you become involved with interview journalism?

PW: I took my first stab at it after college in 1975 while on a fellowship from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation. It was pretty much trial by fire. Based in Vienna, I traveled to Eastern Europe and interviewed survivors of the concentration camps. These interviews now comprise “The Peter Wortsman Collection of Oral History” at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. My first stage play, “The Tattooed Man Tells All,” and several other texts were drawn from this material.


KF: Our readers also enjoy your column, “Rx for Travel.” Your travel and other expository prose have run in several major newspapers, have they not?

PW: I’ve published in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, and Washington Post, among other papers in the States, and in the German papers Die Zeit, Die Welt, and Atlantic Times. I’ve also published travel reflections on the popular website World Hum.


KF: I understand you have other travel-related projects in the works.

PW: “Ghost Dance in Berlin,” a book of impressions of Berlin, a city in which I’ve spent some time, will be published by Travelers Tales/Solas House in 2013. An excerpt titled “Protected” ran in Travelers Tales’ “The Best Travel Writing 2011.” It’s the fourth year in a row I’ve had writing selected for that anthology. The piece was subsequently translated into German and published in the German magazine Cicero, Magazin für politische Kultur, Berlin’s answer to the New Yorker, and received the 2012 Gold Grand Prize for Best Travel Story of the Year in the Solas-Travelers’ Tales Awards Competition. And New Word City, an electronic publisher, recently issued my eBooks, “The Urban Nomad – Paris” and “The Urban Nomad – Vienna,” the first two in my new series of short eBooks, “Notes of an Urban Nomad,” available for Kindle.


KF: Please explain the German connection.

PW: The New York born son of émigrés from Vienna, I grew up bilingual, with a foot on either side of the Atlantic, so to speak. Some years ago I started writing in German in addition to English. In 2008 I received The Geertje Potash-Suhr SCALG-Prose Prize of the Society for Contemporary American Literature in German, for my original short fiction in German. I’ve also translated 12 books from the German to date, including the classic texts, “Travel Pictures” by Heinrich Heine, “Posthumous Papers of a Living Author” by Robert Musil, now out in its third edition, and, excerpted yet a fourth time in “Flypaper,” by Penguin UK, and most recently, “Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist”. In addition, I edited and translated an anthology, “Tales of the German Imagination, from The Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann” slated for publication by Penguin Classics in the UK in 2013 and a new selection and translation of “Tales of the Brothers Grimm” forthcoming in 2012 from Archipelago Books.


KF: Your work has received glowing reviews in major publications, including The Wall Street Journal.

PW: Welcome words.


KF: I understand you received another honor recently.

PW: In 2010 I was the recipient of a Holtzbrinck Fellowship from the American Academy in Berlin for my writing and translation.


KF: I see that you write in multiple genres.

PW: Yes, I do. In 1985 I was the recipient of the Beard’s Fund Short Story Award for my short fiction. I am the author of a book of short stories, “A Modern Way to Die”. My short non-fiction reminiscences of New York have run on the popular website, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. I also have published prose poetry in various journals and anthologies. In 2004 I produced a limited edition artists’ book, “it-t=i,” a collaboration with my brother, artist Harold Wortsman (my prose poems, his etchings), which is in a number of major collections, including the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College, the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale, the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington, and the Library of Congress, as well as several private collections. It is represented by Joshua Heller, a dealer in Washington, D.C. The Lilly Library in Indiana, by the way, collects my literary papers.

Ken Forde and Peter Wortsman

KF: You have also written for the stage. Tell me about that.

PW: I already mentioned my first play, “The Tattooed Man Tells All,” which had its first staged reading produced by The Total Theatre Lab in 2000 at the Fales Library at NYU. My second play, “Burning Words,” was premiered by the Hampshire Shakespeare Company at the Northampton Center for the Arts, in Northampton, Mass., in 2006, had a staged reading in Berlin in 2010, and will be produced, in German translation, in Germany in 2014.


KF: What’s next?

PW: I have a novel in the works and am collaborating with my daughter, Aurélie, currently a senior at Duke University and a talented young artist, on a graphic novel based on my dystopian novel, “Cold Earth Wanderers.”


KF: Peter, we’re lucky to have you writing for us.

PW: I’m lucky to be here. My interviews with P&S alumni have compelled me to delve into almost every branch of medicine, and so, have kept me intellectually on my toes and knowledgeable. For that and for the many friendships I’ve made working as alumni news writer for P&S Journal (now Columbia Medicine) and managing editor of alumni publications for the P&S Alumni Association, I am immensely grateful. I am particularly grateful to Anke Nolting, Ph.D., associate dean of alumni relations and development, for inspiring and supporting my creative efforts all these years and to Liz Williams, director of alumni relations, to her predecessor Katherine Couchells, and to all my colleagues in the Alumni Office, whom I am lucky to count as my friends.


A list of Peter Wortsman’s alumni profiles, some with links:

Rebel Doctor With A Cause: Benjamin Spock’29

Baby Doctor and Political Activist

excerpted in the CPMC 75th anniversary issue


The Un-retiring Dean of American Rheumatologists: Ephraim P. Engleman’37

Spring/Summer 2009 issue


Notes of a Pioneering Neurosurgeon: J. Lawrence Pool’32 MSD, ’40 M.D.


Urologist, Historian, Collector, Sleuth: John K. Lattimer’38

A Medical Man for All Seasons


At Home in High Places: Charles S. Houston’39

Mountain Climber and High Altitude Physiology Expert

Fall 1999 issue


Yes, There is Balm in Gilead: Margaret Morgan Lawrence’40

Pioneering African-American Child Psychiatrist


A Doctor's Doctor: Abbie Ingalls Knowlton’42

Internist Extraordinaire


Babies' Best Friend: T. Berry Brazelton’43D

Child Development Specialist, Author and Television Broadcaster

Spring 1996 issue


Medicine by Blue Pencil: Arnold Relman’46

Former Editor-in-Chief of The New England Journal of Medicine


First Woman of Medicine: Helen Ranney’47

Hematologist and First Woman Appointed Chair of a Department of Medicine


Out of Anguish Into Africa: Martha M. MacGuffie’49

Reconstructive Surgeon and Founder of The Society for Hospital and Resource Exchange (SHARE)

excerpted in the CPMC 75th anniversary issue


At the Cancer Command: Paul Marks’49

Former President and CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

PDF from Fall 1995 Issue


A Nobel Laureate's Lifelong Commitment to Curiosity: Baruch Blumberg’51

The Biomedical Anthropologist Who Identified Hepatitis B

Winter 1996 issue


Part II: A Nobel Laureate Out of This World: Baruch Blumberg’51

Director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute

Fall 2002 issue


An Educator Not Afraid to Stick His Neck Out: Calvin H. Plimpton’51 MSD

Former President of Amherst College and the American University of Beirut

excerpted in the CPMC 75th anniversary issue


A Lifelong Advocate for Women's Health: Lila Wallis’51



A Doctor to the World: John H. Bryant’53

Expert in International Health

Winter 2003 issue


Pioneering Gerontologist Promotes Respect for “Our Future Selves:” Robert N. Butler’53

Online remembrance


An American Odyssey: Robert Coles’54

Child Psychiatrist and Pulitzer-Prize Winning Author

Fall 2004 issue


Merck's M.D. at the Top: P. Roy Vagelos’54

Former President and CEO of Merck & Co.

excerpted in the CPMC 75th anniversary issue


New Jersey's Health Crusader Looks Back with Pride: Stanley S. Bergen Jr.’55

Founder and President Emeritus of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey


A Shared Life in Medicine, Canadian Style: Richard’55 and Sylvia Cruess’55

Dean Emeritus of McGill Medical School, and Medical Director of Royal Victoria Hospital

Winter 1995 issue


From Endocrinology to Admissions, a Life in Medicine: Andrew G. Frantz’55

Winter/Spring 2010 issue


A Doctor in the House--the White House, That Is: Burton J. Lee III’56

Former White House Personal Physician to President George Bush


A Matter of Heart: Clyde Y.C. Wu’56

Cardiologist, Columbia University Trustee and Medical Philanthropist

Fall 2010 issue


A Digital Pioneer at the National Library of Medicine: Donald A.B. Lindberg’58

Director of the National Library of Medicine

Fall 1998 issue


A Pivotal Player at P&S and Presbyterian Hospital Throws in the White Coat

(And Looks Back with Pride): Thomas Q. Morris’58

Winter 2004 issue


A Scientific Champion of Sleep: Howard Roffwarg’58

Pioneering Researcher in the Physiology of REM “Dream” Sleep

Spring 1999 issue


From Student to Surgeon to University Trustee—A Columbia Journey: Kenneth Forde’59

Winter 2008 issue


A Doctor to the World: Allan Rosenfield’59

Winter 2007 issue


From White Coat to Cassocks, an M.D. of the Cloth: Rev. Dr. Anne C. Brower’64

Spring/Summer 2005 issue


Surgeon-Scientist Takes Knowledge to the Cutting Edge: Patricia Donahoe’64

Surgeon and Cancer Researcher

Winter 1997 issue


A Surgeon in Space: F. Story Musgrave’64

Former NASA Astronaut

Fall 1997 issue


Leading by Listening: Keith Brodie’65

President Emeritus, Duke University

excerpted in the CPMC 75th anniversary issue


Part II: Musings of a President Emeritus: Keith Brodie’65

Fall 2008 issue


An Allstar on the Team Against TB: Michael Iseman’65

International Authority on Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis

Spring 1997 issue


Adventures in Virology: Jay Levy’65

Co-discoverer of the HIV Virus

Fall 2009 issue


It Takes Heart: Suzanne Oparil’65

Former President of The American Heart Association

Spring 1995 issue


The Master of the Medical Thriller: Robin B. Cook’66


excerpted in the CPMC 75th anniversary issue


Part II: Medicine by the Book: Robin B. Cook’66

Winter 2009 issue


Receptive to Receptors: Robert J. Lefkowitz’66

Spring/Summer 2008 issue


Nobel Laureate at the NIH: Harold Varmus’66

Former Director of the National Institutes of Health


The Chemistry of Success: Nelson Levy’67

Pharmaceutical Researcher and Entrepreneur

Spring 2011 issue


The Assistant Secretary for Health is a Doctor First and Foremost: Eve Slater’71

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health

Spring/Summer 2003 issue


A Veteran NIH Investigator Takes on Complementary and Alternative Medicine:

Stephen E. Straus’72

Fall 2006 issue


Micro-Miracle Worker: David T.W. Chiu’73

Reconstructive Microsurgeon


FDA’s Master of Medical Preparedness: Mark Goldberger’73

Fall 2007 issue


A New Dean Digs In at Boston University School of Medicine: Karen Antman’74

Winter 2006 issue


Medicine by Bench, Bedside and Book: Jerome Groopman’76

Oncologist-author- New Yorker columnist

Fall 2000 issue


At the Head of Harlem’s North General Hospital: Samuel Daniel’78

Spring/Summer 2004 issue


A Military Neurologist on the Front Against Chemical Attack: Col. Jonathan Newmark, M.C., U.S.A.R.’78

Spring 2002 issue


Kidneys are Colorblind: Velma Scantlebury’81

First African-American woman transplant surgeon in the U.S.

Spring/Summer 2007 issue


A Life in Epidemiology: Ezra Susser’82

Spring/Summer 2006 issue


Managing a Practice with Patients in the Millions: Thomas R. Frieden’86

New York City Commissioner of Health

Winter 2005 issue


Scientific Wunderkind of Biotech Makes Proteins Do the Right Thing: George D. Yancopoulos’86 Ph.D/’87 M.D.

Winter 2002 issue


Josh Bazell’06: Is There a Hit Man in the House?

Bestselling Novelist

Fall 2011 issue