At 93, Thomas Bourne Turner is almost as old as the 20th century, but he's certainly in a lot better shape.
Dr. Turner is dean emeritus of the Johns Hopkins Medical School, a position so exalted in American medicine that it inspires awe in distinguished physicians not unlike the respect West Point generals command in old soldiers.
Yet he is engagingly unaffected, unpretentious and egalitarian, qualities perhaps nurtured by his deep roots in Calvert County. He aspired only to be a country doctor when he left to study medicine.
He's been a doctor 70 years. He still drives to his office at the Johns Hopkins Medical School virtually every day and walks briskly through the halls of the vast East Baltimore complex, a familiar figure now to generations of Hopkins doctors, nurses and patients.
Known to his friends and almost everyone else as Tommy, he joins senior faculty members at their traditional twice-a-week luncheons and regrets the absence of newer professors who neglect to come. He prizes the civility of personal contact in this age of e-mail.
He regularly attends the Saturday "grand rounds," that great teaching device pioneered at the Hopkins medical school, wherein specialists or medical experts present and discuss interesting cases of the week to other physicians. Even as he laments his friends who are "dying off at a much too rapid rate," Dr. Turner remains deeply interested in medicine, vitally interested in life in general and extraordinarily youthful.
"I don't feel old," he says. "But sometimes when I walk up stairs I remember it."
He's a courtly man, easily erect in crisply tailored suits, a genial patrician in the style of the amiable Baltimoreans celebrated in an earlier generation by Francis Beirne, the urbane chronicler of an older, gentler city.
He's a cordial host at his classic Bolton Hill townhouse. In his inviting study on the second floor overlooking Park Avenue, he's lively, diverting and stimulating during long conversations. He doesn't quite bound up the winding stairs, but he climbs with the alacrity a 60-year-old could envy, maybe even some 30-year-olds.
"I'll tell you, I like young people," says Dr. Turner, who's been married twice and has two daughters, five grandsons and six great-grandchildren. "I spot coming youngsters. I never feel out of place with my grandsons."
Dr. Turner seems to get along pretty well with all the generations of his offspring, who range in age from his two daughters, Anne Pope, 57, and Patti Walker, 51, to his newest great-granddaughter, Emma Pope, who will be baptized today. A few weeks ago the Baltimore Messenger asked children at Roland Park Country School whom they admired the most. He was surprised when his 11-year-old great-granddaughter, Catherine Pope, named him.
And she says wants to be a doctor, the first member of his family to express any interest in following him into medicine. The possibility pleases Dr. Turner tremendously.
"He's always supported young people," says Dr. George B. Udvarhelyi, professor of neurosurgery at Hopkins during Dr. Turner's tenure. "He felt new people at the hospital often were a little bit lost. He included them in the parties he would give at his house. Few leaders have that aspect of humility."
Nor do they have Dr. Turner's quirky wit and wisdom. In his 1993 Christmas cards, he included a list of 10 aphorisms gleaned from the lessons of his 91 years. He called it "A Few Things Learned During a Long Life (not necessarily in the order of importance)."
His advice ranged from the funny ("When given a book, thank the giver within 48 hours; otherwise you'll have to read it") to the profound. ("Love, affection and compassion are allied, but not the same. Reciprocated love is rare; cherish and guard it well. Affection supports life's infrastructure; compassion underpins the world.")
Dr. Udvarhelyi, a Hungarian neurosurgeon trained in Budapest and Vienna, describes him as "one of the last gentlemen, in the traditional way of a Southern Maryland gentleman."
He's a gallant, gregarious man who remains attractive to women.
"He loves nice parties," says Dr. Udvarhelyi, who is a bit of a bon vivant himself. "He's still very charming with the ladies, and they love him. I don't know anybody who doesn't like Dr. Turner."
A couple of times a week Dr. Turner visits the hallowed precincts of the 14th West Hamilton Street Club, a refuge for intelligent conversation in downtown Baltimore. He's been a member more than 60 years, longer than any other member. He drops in regularly on Saturday for a drink and talk with old friends. He drinks American beer, white wine and Scotch whisky -- in moderation, two drinks a day. He once wrote a paper suggesting two drinks were good for the constitution.
Dr. Turner also remains a steadfast churchgoer. The Episcopal church was a center of social life during his Calvert County youth, and he went regularly and happily. He still does.
He remembers visiting nearly every Episcopal church in Baltimore when he was a medical student. He still has his favorites. He goes most often now to Memorial Episcopal in Bolton Hill.
Dr. Turner has been at the Hopkins since he came as a fellow in infectious medicine in 1927. He's imbued with the culture and tradition and esprit de corps of the Hopkins medical institutions. And he's come to embody them.
"I think he's vintage Johns Hopkins, the type of person that makes Johns Hopkins what it is, which in my opinion is something very special," says Dr. Benjamin M. Baker, a renowned clinician, professor of medicine, and almost exact contemporary of Dr. Turner in age and service at Hopkins.
The two men are living links with the founders of the school, the historic "Four Doctors" of John Singer Sargent's painting and of American medicine: Sir William Osler, Hopkins' first professor of medicine, later knighted in Britain; William S. Halsted, first professor of surgery; Howard A. Kelly, first professor of gynecology; William H. Welch, first professor of pathology and the first dean of the medical faculty.
"I have known almost every one who has ever been connected with the Hopkins medical school," Dr. Turner says, "with the exception of five or six of the very earliest ones. I never knew Dr. Osler. I never knew Dr. Halsted. And I didn't know Billings. But either here or at another medical school, I've known virtually everyone else pretty well."
Dr. John Shaw Billings, an army medical officer who had served at Gettysburg during the Civil War, designed Hopkins to be a hospital dedicated to medical education. The school he envisioned opened officially in 1893, just nine years before Dr. Turner was born.
Dr. Turner became dean of the medical school in 1957 and stayed until 1968.
"Dean of the Hopkins School of Medicine," says his old friend and colleague, Dr. Baker. He stresses each word in the title with what amounts to reverence. "That's a distinguished job, to be dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine."
Respected by all
Dr. Turner assisted Dr. Baker when he was chief resident at Hopkins clinics while they were research fellows together. Fellows then split their time between research and clinical practice. Dr. Baker is about six months older than Dr. Turner. He was also a first-class runner, who competed at Britain's Oxford University against Harry Abrahams, the hero of the film "Chariots of Fire."
"I would say that one of the outstanding things about Tommy Turner was that he was respected by the full-time staff, the part-time staff, the students and the post-graduate fellows.
"He's a lovely guy and a warm, intimate, gentlemanly friend," he says, "and a great scientist."
Dr. Udvarhelyi, who championed cultural affairs at the medical school, recalls Dr. Turner as a great supporter when some remained skeptical of the value of art and music and literature at a medical school.
"He had a vision that was unusual," Dr. Udvarhelyi says. "He was a very good dean. He was a bridge to the past and a pillar for the future -- and he hung on the wires in between."
Dr. Turner grew up in a Calvert County where his father built riverboat wharves, tobacco was king and juleps were properly made with rye whiskey. He traces his ancestry to one "Commander" Robert Brooke, who organized the county in 1654.
He had planned to become a lawyer, but his father reminded him that both two of his great-grandfathers had been doctors and that the county needed doctors.
"So I decided to be a doctor," he says. "I was always going to be a country doctor in Calvert County. But I never made it back."
He'd earned his medical degree at the University of Maryland, graduating third in his class. He never applied to the Hopkins school of medicine.
"I didn't have all the chemistry and physics I needed," he says. "I'm sure I never would have been accepted at Hopkins."
Dr. Turner had gone to St. John's College in Annapolis on a scholarship. St. John's was strong on the classics, but weak in science, except for military science. Marylanders familiar with the contemporary St. John's and its Great Books curriculum might be bemused to learn it was once thought of as a military school. Dr. Turner still has the saber he won as commander of the best-drilled company in the battalion.
He arrived at Hopkins in 1927 as one of six post-doctoral fellows in the Department of Medicine. There are 895 similar fellows now. He was assigned to the syphilis unit. Research in syphilis and related diseases became his lifelong specialization.
Dr. Turner's resolve to return to Calvert County as a country doctor was cut off by an assignment to Haiti in 1929 to do research on the tropical disease yaws.
"We would go out into the country districts and isolate strains of the disease," he says. He also did a fair amount of plain country doctoring in that desperately poor nation, treating illness and injuries where there were no other doctors. "We saw a lot of Haiti. As far as I can tell, things haven't changed much there."
The research he did in Haiti became the basis for treatment regimens when antibiotics such as penicillin became available.
In 1932, he went to Jamaica to head the yaws commission started by the Rockefeller Foundation.
"The first year I worked very hard," he told Sun reporter Randi Henderson in a 1989 interview in his definitive statement on those years. "The second not quite so hard. The third year I found myself playing polo most of the time. I thought it was time to come home."
He'd been at ease on horses since his fox-hunting days with his grandfather in Southern Maryland. On the jousting lists of Calvert County, he'd been known as the Knight of Holly Hill, after the farm where his mother was raised. He and his sister Virginia still own the old home place. He once won a tournament and the right to name the Queen of Love and Beauty. He crowned the woman who became his first wife, Anne Parran Somervell Turner.
She died in 1960. His second wife, Lorna Caithness Levy Turner, was English and a long-time friend from his Jamaican days. She died 13 years ago.
After leaving Jamaica, he was lured to work with the Rockefeller Foundation in New York for another year by Dr. Wilbur Sawyer, an eminent researcher in yellow fever.
But in 1937 Dr. Turner returned to Hopkins, became professor of microbiology, and never again left, except for service with the Army during World War II. He joined a secret group studying Nazi Germany's biological warfare capabilities, then developed the Army's venereal disease control program. He ended his service as a civil affairs officer in North Africa and Europe.
He presided over enormous changes at Hopkins during his 11 years as dean of the medical school. He has written an account of his stewardship, along with several informal memoirs and a history of the medical school, not to mention numerous scientific papers and studies. He was even archivist for a while after retiring as dean.
"I have seen and been a part of what I think are three major revolutions," Dr. Turner says, seated before the marble fireplace in his study.
"The first was the development of engines, electric, steam and gasoline engines, and interior bathrooms," he says. "I grew up in the old world, before we had indoor plumbing, indoor water supplies. Even my sisters didn't know that part of life in the beginning of the century, the first decade. So I knew that world, the horse-and-buggy world.
"The second revolution, I think, was the development of antibiotics in the late '30s, which has changed the age distribution of the population -- forever.
"And now I think we're entering a third revolution, of the computers, and also the crime. I don't know where that's going to take us. But I won't really be a part of that. But I think that's upon us now."
During his stewardship, the size of the Hopkins' physical plant doubled, the annual operating budget zoomed up 500 percent, the faculty nearly doubled, and biophysics, laboratory animal medicine and biomedical engineering departments were added.
"When I think back on my time as dean," he says, "I think the things I didn't let happen were more important than the things that did happen."
He refused to let his scientists do secret government research at Hopkins, and he insisted that the university direct the medical research funded by a deluge of federal money.
"I think that was an important decision," he says. "The National Institutes of Health would have exerted much more control than they wound up doing."
But while he was dean he lost his battle to moderate the rate of growth encouraged by the flow of federal research money. Hopkins remains among the top recipients of federal funding, but the flow of money has slowed down now.
The 'old road'
"We have more faculty than we can easily support," he says. "It is a problem, how we're going to support this big full-time faculty."
He treasures Hopkins' "old road" of unfettered education and advancement of knowledge. He's a staunch defender of academic freedom and was on the Hopkins committee that examined McCarthy-era charges that Owen Lattimore, a renowned Hopkins expert on Mongolia, had been a Communist.
The committee concluded there was no good evidence against Mr. Lattimore and no reason to discharge him, a fairly courageous and rare decision at the time.
"Owen Lattimore was a damn fool," Dr. Turner says, "but I don't think he was a Communist or a traitor to his country."
His stewardship and Milton S. Eisenhower's term as president of the university coincided, and they became good friends and allies.
"I'm a great admirer of Milton and I thought he was a great president," Dr. Turner says.
And he came to know Milton's brother, Dwight E. Eisenhower, commander of the European army during World War II and 34th PTC president of the United States.
"Ike and Milton were quite different," Dr. Turner says. "Ike didn't talk much, and what he did have to say was extremely sensible.
"He was quick on the trigger and quick to anger," he says. "You could detect it when he began to flush.
"His flush would rise from his neck up. But he kept quiet. He didn't let himself go. I certainly respected him, but I think Milton was the more genial person."
When his term as dean ended, Dr. Turner went back into practice as an internist in Dr. Baker's clinic.
"Fifty years later he was running the clinic, and there I was. He was a much better internist than I ever was," Dr. Turner says.
After a post-meridian drink in his study, Dr. Turner looks back on his years in medicine with great satisfaction. "I loved it," he says. "Medicine is just fascinating.
"It's an enormous umbrella," he says. "You can do so many things under it. You can be a scientist, you can be an internist, you can be a psychiatrist, whatever you want to be.
"I think of myself as an internist with a patient-doctor relationship," he says. "That's something that's just stayed with me all these years. I never quite gave up my stethoscope. I always thought I might get back to being a country doctor. But I've never made it."
A FEW THINGS LEARNED DURING A LONG LIFE
Date what you write. Otherwise, neither you nor anyone else will likely remember whether it was written months or years ago. (Of course, no one may care.)
Almost all soups can be improved by a dash of sherry.
The quality of life and the effort to improve it are what it's all about.
When given a book, thank the giver within 48 hours; otherwise you really will have to read it.
Love, affection and compassion are allied, but not the same. Reciprocated love is rare; cherish and guard it well. Affection supports life's infrastructure; compassion underpins the world.
Hold on to the banisters going down stairs.
By Dr. Thomas B. Turner, September 1993