Remarks by the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., at the establishment of the College of Science and Health

September 16, 2011
 
I didn’t come to know William Carlos Williams through his Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry, but rather through his short stories. He was, of course, a medical doctor whose patients filled his day, and whose poetry was relegated to his earliest and latest hours and perhaps his few quiet moments walking to house calls.
 

Even then, in the first half of the 20th century, those house calls were an anomaly. But for him, they provided key information to understand his patients’ conditions. They provided, too, the firsthand knowledge of poverty and human nature that so suffused his writing.

​​Those stories became a place for this bifurcated man to wrestle with the tugs and pulls of his scientific profession. The story “Dance Pseudomacabre” wonders when we should stop treating and simply let death proceed. “The Paid Nurse” thinks about conflicts when the health system’s interest doesn’t align with the patient’s. “The Girl With a Pimply Face” observes the connections between how we view the poor and what we believe about health care delivery. “The Use of Force” asks about the degree to which we respect a patient’s wishes when we believe him or her to be making the wrong choice. “Ancient Gentility,” “Mind and Body,” “The Insane” and so many others find the diagnosis in a person’s humanity while others are distracted by the scientific problem to be solved.[1]

William Carlos Williams wrestled his whole life with the intersection of humanity and the professional practice of medicine, using fiction and sometimes poetry. And the rest of us benefited from being able to see into his soul as he did.

I give you William Carlos Williams as you begin your first year as a College of Science and Health. But not only William Carlos Williams.

I give you also Charles Darwin.

Friedrich von Hügel, a famed Oxford scholar of the last century, was once invited “to speak to a gathering of Christian students at Oxford.” Scholar Michael Himes recounts the story thus:

One of the things [von Hügel] said in that talk must have seemed terribly shocking to a gathering of presumably earnest young Christian gentlemen at Oxford in 1901. In a rhetorical question, von Hügel asked them who they thought had been the greatest example of asceticism?of self-discipline for the sake of deeper insight?in the nineteenth century that had just ended. And he answered his own question with the name of Charles Darwin. Now, this must have surprised those young Christian gentlemen, for Darwin was still a very controversial figure, and a rather dangerous one in the minds of many religious believers. Von Hügel explained that the point of asceticism is not to discipline the self as if depriving oneself of goods pleases God. The point of asceticism, insisted von Hügel, is to get oneself out of the way sufficiently, so that one is not forever looking only at one’s own hopes and fears and dreams and desires, but can see what is there to be seen. He cited Darwin as a striking example of extraordinary intelligence and energy, patiently and painstakingly subordinated to the careful observation of the beaks of pigeons and varieties of barnacles: an insistence on seeing what is there, not what you would like to be there, or what you hope is there, or what you fear is there.[2]

And so I give you Charles Darwin as you begin your first year as a college. But not only Charles Darwin.

I give you also Mary Alice McWhinnie.

A few of you, of course, knew Mary Alice personally. Tiffany Wayne, this past year, published a new history of women scientists since 1900 and included Mary Alice within it. She wrote:

Mary McWhinnie was one of the first two women scientists to winter in Antarctica to study krill. Her research involved crustacean metabolism, with special reference to carbohydrates during the molt cycle, and her findings highlighted the importance of krill to the ocean food chain. As a child growing up in Illinois, she developed an interest in nature and especially fishing, and went on to study biology at DePaul University. She worked as an assistant in biological sciences at the university while also completing her master’s degree, and went on to receive her Ph.D. from Northwestern University.

She spent her entire teaching career at DePaul University, advancing through the ranks from instructor to professor. It was while studying crayfish in Chicago that she became interested in comparing them to their cold-water cousins, krill. She prepared a proposal for the NSF and, in 1962, embarked on a two-month research cruise as the first American woman scientist assigned to the U.S. Antarctic Research program. She returned again in 1972, this time as the ship’s chief scientist, and in 1974, she and her female research assistant [3] were the first women to spend the winter at the McMurdo research station on Antarctica.

Over the course of her career, McWhinnie made 11 trips to Antarctica to study krill and became the worldwide expert on krill as an ocean food source. In the late 1970s, she became an ecological spokesperson advocating for the protection of krill against over-fishing.[4]

Three people: a student of bird’s beaks, a student of krill, and a physician/student of human nature.

I offer you Charles Darwin specifically for his asceticism, a virtue long respected in the Catholic tradition. The scientific life is indeed one of ascetic, patient, disciplined and rigorous observation. It requires the humility of accepting the judgments and secondary observations of peers. And this is the life into which we bring our students. We offer them not just the technical knowledge of our fields, but the virtues and discipline of the craft. We train our students not only in science, but to become scientists. Five years Darwin spent on The Beagle. A lifetime he spent pouring over those recorded observations and collected specimens, coming to understand what they told him about the development of species. And it is that lifetime of disciplined, informed, creative and, yes, ascetic observation that we offer our students and for which we train them.

It is no accident that that the word “Science” precedes “Health” in this college’s new name. I draw your attention to it today because it is my sincere hope that whatever medical programs this new college establishes, it will be science that will be the first and foremost activity and training of all who study in these halls and laboratories. There were good reasons to collect you into an academic unit unto yourselves, but to reduce you to a professional college was not among them. It would be a great loss indeed if the sciences were ever to be understood as service courses to a professional school. Quite the contrary. This college is specifically and intentionally named to signal the preeminence and foundational role of basic science and research, and the derivative role of professional practice stemming from this knowledge. It will be your work as faculty to see that it is so. May you always take that responsibility most seriously, for you, and not the central administration, will make the curricular and administrative choices that will most shape this.

I offer you Mary Alice McWhinnie, this afternoon, not to assert any particular rank for her among the pantheon of “great scientists from DePaul.” She certainly and rightfully won respect from her peers, but she is among many strong DePaul scientists who have been your colleagues. No, I give you Mary Alice to remind you of two truths that have long been characteristic of this university and your departments.

The Vincentian Mission of DePaul has rightfully focused over the years on the stories of deserving young people who could not get ahead without our personal interest in them. Several years ago at convocation, I told you the story of Franklin Prout, a DePaul professor of organic chemistry who took a young first-generation student under his wing, encouraged him and then helped him to get into Northwestern’s Ph.D. program. He changed that young man’s life.[5] We know that biologist and former DePaul president Fr. John R. Cortelyou mentored Mary Alice during her [pursuit of a] master’s degree.[6] I don’t know the names of those who mentored Mary Alice during her undergraduate years, but because of those DePaul faculty who encouraged her, the world now understands the food chain in…important ways. It has always been the culture of sciences at DePaul to take young students under your wing and encourage them to [achieve] greater things than they can imagine when they enter. I draw your attention to Mary Alice today with the…certain hope that mentoring the young will always be a defining characteristic of this college. And there is more.

It has also been true over time that many among your number have taken their knowledge and used it for the betterment of society. For example:

  • The Community Mental Health Center has bettered uncountable lives and was clearly a work of the heart by Sheila Ribordy and so many of you.
  • The work of preparing math and science teachers for Chicago public schools helps not only teachers, of course, but their students and, one day, their students’ families.
  • The Lincoln Park Community Shelter and so many other organizations have been very grateful over the years for the nursing department’s clearly articulated goal of assisting vulnerable populations.
  • And of course, Mary Alice, like so many of you, contributed to the world powerfully through her basic science. For basic science itself is a work of the heart, done [with] the sheer faith that one day the world will benefit from the work done at a research bench. It is true that in her later years, she became an “ecological spokesperson,” but her voice would never have been heard above the din unless her scientific work had made her points first. Excellent scholarship itself is activism. Never let anyone tell you otherwise. God bless basic research.

Taken together, these two characteristics—mentoring the young into scientific careers and applying science for the good of humanity—have been the primary ways in which your departments have lived the Vincentian mission of this university. I ask today that this new college continue to be known and characterized by the ways in which the world is made better because of your work.

And for all this, I still dare offer you one final model in William Carlos Williams. A trained physician, yes. A skilled poet and author, yes. But also a physician who wrestled with great questions of humanity in the midst of his professional practice. And therein lie my final encouragements to you today.

The College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, from which you just separated, is understandably nervous about this separation. They fear that you will lose what is of most value when the sciences are tied closely to their disciplines.

They—and I—hope for more. Your students will wrestle with great questions of humanity if—and likely only if—they see you doing so. Scientific advances always raise important questions for the human community. Embrace those questions. Engage them deeply. Help your students to do the same. I give you no easy answers, but I do point you toward the philosophers, the writers, the artists, the historians, the social scientists, the theologians—all those women and men who have made it their life’s work to study the human condition and its social fabric, and to understand why we are as we are and how we might live better, fuller and more meaning-filled lives.

Never separate these great questions…from your own work, but look for the ways in which your scientific and technical work gives rise to these questions, pushes the boundaries of these questions and throws past answers into question. Never adopt the easy arrogance of assuming that your field of study provides the last word, but look for the ways that other fields throw your answers into question as well. In short, help your students learn more than science. Help them integrate science into the fullness of their human search for knowledge and understanding. That—and only that—will be worthy of an organization that dares call itself a College of Science and Health inside the largest Catholic university in America.

I offer you Dr. Williams too for the sheer and obvious reason that he was an excellent physician: a GP at first, and later a pediatrician. His house calls were emblematic of a man whose heart was always fully engaged in his professional life. He loved his patients. He went far and beyond for them. He treated the poorest for free. The poor of Paterson, N.J., knew they had a friend in him who would actually listen to them and find a way to help them.

Among all your work in nursing education, the preparation of mental health professionals and the numerous new health professions that you are planning, I ask you to prepare health professionals of great heart. Teach them to work at the highest levels of their practice, but teach them also that they needn’t check their humanity at the door. Teach them and show them how to serve the poor. In McGowan South, there is a two-story picture of St. Vincent de Paul made up of photographs of students, faculty and staff from your college. Let that picture be emblematic of your work as a whole. Let it always be said that graduates from this college love the poor, work with engaged hearts and are the very best in their fields. For that will truly be worthy of the ideals of a College of Science and Health under the name of Vincent de Paul.

And so I lay several challenges before you today, but I do so knowing that you already share these ideals. You’ve lived these ideals for many years as departments. I am proud of what you’ve built to date and what you will now build together. This is a wonderful step forward for the university. As president, I promise to do whatever is in my power to help you collectively realize your potential as a new college. I ask in turn that you take your role as founders of the new college most seriously. You will set its directions, its culture and its values. I ask you to preserve what has been best about your past as individual departments and then create a truly extraordinary college. I have great confidence that it can be done, because I know all of you.

Permit me, then, to name and address you this afternoon as you rightly deserve: Founders of this college, thank you for your love of your disciplines. Thank you for your love for our students. Thank you for your love of DePaul University and its mission.

May God richly bless this college, and through you and all those who follow, may this DePaul University College of Science and Health become and ever remain a great blessing for the world.​ 

 


​[1] Williams, William Carlos. “The Doctor Stories,” ed. Robert Coles. New Directions Publishing Co., 1984. 

 
[2] Himes, Michael J. “The Grace of Teaching,” Sacred Heart University Review (2001), Vol. 21: Issue 1, Article 1. Available at http://digitalcommons.sacredheart.edu/shureview/vol21/iss1/1. 

 
[3] Sister Mary Odile Cahoon, O.S.B., Ph.D., holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from DePaul University and a Ph.D. in cellular physiology from the University of Toronto. She describes their experience in “Women in the Antarctic,” by Esther D. Rothblum, Jacqueline S. Weinstock and Jessica Morris (Routledge Press, 1998, pp. 31-39). 

 
[4] Wayne, Tiffany. “American Women of Science Since 1900.” Greenwood Publishing Group, 2011, p. 679. 

 
[5]http://president.depaul.edu/FromThePresident/ShowArchivedAddress_5_2165_2219.html.

 
[6]Murphy, Thomas J. “Women in Leadership @ DePaul: Mar​y Alice McWhinnie, Ph.D.” Unpublished paper presented at DePaul University, October 10, 2003.​
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