Thursday, July 05, 2007

In memoriam: Clare Peterson, 1917-2007

I can't let more days go by before acknowledging the death of a major campus figure: Clare Gray Peterson, M.D., surgeon, teacher, scholar, passed away on June 20, just a few months shy of his 90th birthday.

Dr. Peterson was a March 1943 graduate of the University of Oregon Medical School. He received his master of science from UOMS in 1945 and completed his surgical residency here as well, under the direction of the illustrious Dr. Thomas M. Joyce. Peterson joined the teaching staff in 1944 and the faculty in 1948, and served as both chief of surgery and chief of pediatric surgery at UOMS Hospitals and Clinics, as well as head of the Division of General Surgery at the Medical School, before his retirement as professor emeritus in 1988. A short obituary is currently available on the Oregonian website.

Peterson was known for his erudition and scholarship; his Perspectives in Surgery, co-written with Dept. of Surgery chair Dr. William Krippaehne, was published in 1972 by Lea & Febiger after its initial debut as a departmentally published volume in 1960. In his oral history interview, conducted in 2000, Peterson drops literary references as easily as surgical terminology: in the first few minutes alone, when discussing his childhood in Montana, Peterson manages to reference Giants in the Earth, Big Rock Candy Mountain, and Wolf Willow without pausing for breath. The index to the interview doesn't quite capture the flavor of the man's speech. Talking about his education, for example, he says:
I also had dedicated teachers in high school, who were remarkable. One was in English and one was in science, interestingly enough. And at that time teaching was really a dedicated profession. It didn’t have all the noise in it; it didn’t have all the different things competing for interest.

And the same thing was true about medicine. Just this morning I picked up Consecratio Medici by Harvey Cushing, and I wrote this: “There’s an old saying that interest does not bind men together. There is only one thing that can effectively bind people, and that is a common devotion.” Well, these were dedicated, devoted teachers.

We’re already talking about the Medical School, because the generation of people here that I’m going to talk a good deal about fit this particular quotation from Harvey Cushing’s commencement address to the medical students at Jefferson College in Philadelphia in 1926.
And later, speaking about women in medicine:
Well, as a matter of fact—you asked me. Generally speaking, I don’t think it’s a good place for women, anymore than I think it’s a good place for women to be in the Third Division of the Marines, in a combat unit. I don’t think they’re built for it; I don’t think they’ve got the right set of genetic factors that make for the combativeness and the capacity of the male to meet certain situations. Physically they aren’t adapted to certain things; many they are. If they are in selected fields, they can do very well.

I have watched—I haven’t had the opportunity to watch women surgeons operate. I’m past the point where I want to prove anything to myself or to anybody else. But I think in general it’s not a good societal investment, either, on the whole, to train too many of them, because they have other things in their career or in their life that make many of them people who do not commit totally to the profession or who drop out of it or do it part time. And just in terms of the investment, it’s—if it’s excessive—I’m not saying women should not be surgeons; I’m sure there are some good ones.
Revered by some, disliked by others, respected by all--Clare G. Peterson leaves a lasting legacy that will not soon be forgotten.

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