Medical school recollection

Philip R. Lee: Following the medical muse

This distinguished physician’s life of learning included a crash course in medicine

Photograph by Leslie Williamson

Alumnus Philip R. Lee, MD


Philip R. Lee, MD, class of ’48, has been crazy about science for as long as he can remember. As a child his interests ranged from frog hunting to physics. As an adult his attention narrowed to medicine — much as it did for his sister and three brothers, all of whom went to medical school at Stanford.

Lee’s career includes a stint in the U.S. Navy, practicing internal medicine at the Palo Alto Medical Clinic, directing health services at the Agency for International Development and serving as assistant secretary with the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare and the Department of Health and Human Services. He has served on the faculty and as chancellor at UC-San Francisco. At UCSF he founded and directed the Institute for Health Policy Studies and now serves as senior scholar. Lee teaches at Stanford as a consulting professor in human biology and serves on the board of Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.

Lee has received many prestigious awards including the California Public Health Association’s Henrik Blum Award (2001), the Institute of Medicine’s Gustav O. Lienhard Award (2000), the American Public Health Association’s Sedgwick Memorial Medal for Distinguished Service (2000) and the Association of American Medical Colleges’ David E. Rogers Award (1998).

Stanford MD’s Joyce Thomas interviewed Lee at his office on the Stanford campus.

Were you interested in science and medicine from an early age?

Lee: Yes, it began with house calls with my dad from the age of 6 or 7. Everyone in the family shared an interest in science, medicine and nature. In the summer we sat around the dining room table and read or we went to Lake Lagunita, which was full then, and looked for frogs and birds and butterflies. As kids we used to visit the physics lab at Stanford. David Webster and Bill Hansen were on the faculty and the Varian brothers were there too. They didn’t kick little kids out; they were very welcoming. We learned science hands-on. One time a schoolmate Steve Morrison and I made a hot air balloon and we sent it aloft and then we followed it all the way to the Bayshore Highway.

Why did you choose Stanford?

Lee: Stanford was the inevitable choice. Everyone went to Stanford in my family. No one seriously considered going elsewhere, certainly not to UC or back East. When I applied to medical school, Dr. [George] Barnett, who was the head of medicine and a very close family friend, said to me “Why are you here?” And I replied, “Well I was told I had to have an interview,” and he promptly said, “Interview’s over.” He knew me and my family very well already.

What one word would you use to describe your experience at Stanford?

Lee: Accelerated. I was a sophomore in pre-med and World War II had started so I joined the Navy and completed the coursework at UCLA in the V-12 ROTC program. Next I spent six months at Oak Knoll Hospital as a Naval corpsman and then — after only two and a half years of college — I started medical school. The war had changed everything; everything was rushed. Medical school ran around the year and around the clock. The atmosphere was extremely collegial and enjoyable, but everyone worked hard and had little free time. I spent four quarters on campus in Palo Alto studying anatomy, bacteriology, biochemistry, histology and so on followed by two years’ clinical education in San Francisco and an internship and then my medical degree. The pace of education was very accelerated.

Which of these classes did you like the most?

Lee: Anatomy. It was fascinating. When you have to start with dissecting a dead body, it’s a very different experience. It’s a “culture shock.”

The least?

Lee: Biochemistry — but maybe that was because I wasn’t very good at it.

During your years at Stanford what was the biggest "story" in medicine?

Lee: Definitely the “revolution” in medicine due to the availability first of sulfonamides, then penicillin, which made once-fatal diseases treatable. Patients with sub-acute bacterial endocarditis could be treated. Strep could be treated as well as TB, which was once a huge killer. This was a period of tremendous change and excitement in medicine.

What was your primary interest: clinical care, research or other?

Lee: I always wanted to be a clinician; I wanted to practice. My brothers and sister each made other choices, surgery or academic medicine, obstetrics or family medicine, but I wanted to be an internist.

Did Stanford change that?

Lee: No, the outstanding teaching at Stanford only reinforced this interest. Any time you were on rounds, for example, with Drs. Barnett, Arthur Bloomfield, Lowell Rantz or Ben Shenson, you learned something and wanted to dig in and learn more. They weren’t turning us into professors, though some of us became professors; they were trying to make everybody a really good clinician.

Who was the keynote speaker at your graduation and did his/her remarks make a lasting impression on you?

Lee: I wasn’t there! I was driving across country with Herb Hultgren [MD ’43]. We were coming back from Boston, where I had finished my internship and he had completed a fellowship. He was going to be on the faculty at Stanford and I was coming back to do a residency. We were probably somewhere in Texas.

What advice do you have for current students?

Lee: For all students, follow your passion. For medical students, in particular, focus on the patients and clinical excellence. Meld science with good clinical training. A medical education offers a tremendous foundation to do anything — from basic research to clinical practice to public health. You can even run for president. SMD

Philip Lee’s favorites on a more personal note

Book — Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela
Movies — Marx Brothers and “Casablanca”
Music — Dixieland jazz, ragtime
Pastimes — Chess, walking, Stanford basketball
Places — Jasper, Alberta, Canada; American Southwest, Taos, N.M.; New York City

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