Handed Down

Time's Prism

Benjamin Greenberger ’16 speaks of a life shaped by generations

“It’s been interesting growing up in an environment in which all my aunts and uncles would talk about their practices and experiences in medicine,” says Benjamin Greenberger ’16. “I found myself drawn to the profession. Even as an undergrad, when I took an interest in physics, a subject I didn’t think of as a premedical concentration, I inevitably would find myself trying to apply it to the sorts of problems that interested my family.”

The environment that Ben refers to is one that sparks stories approaching the mythic, populated as it is by remarkable people who accomplish remarkable goals and exhibit remarkable dedication to family and profession. The young Greenberger, you see, is the grandson of Arthur Guyton ’43, author of the seminal Textbook of Medical Physiology and a former chairman of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. He’s also the nephew of Guyton physicians David ’69, Robert ’71, John ’73, Steven ’75, Jean Guyton Gispen (Harvard ’75 [AB], Duke University [MD] ’79), Douglas ’81, James ’85, Thomas ’87, and Gregory ’93, and the son of Joel Greenberger ’71 and Catherine Guyton Greenberger (Harvard ’73 [AB], ’80 [PhD], University of Miami ’82 [MD]).

“My parents never pressured me to choose a particular path,” Ben adds, “but I think they did give a nod of approval when they heard me confess my plans for medical school. Both of them said, ‘You can’t go wrong with an MD. No matter how you choose to practice, you can always find ways to improve the care you can provide for your patients.’”

Arthur Guyton and grandson Benjamin
Arthur Guyton and grandson Benjamin

Their advice, even when lightly given, is welcomed by Ben. He looks forward, for example, to the time he spends with his father whenever the elder Greenberger comes through Boston.

“My dad balances two lifestyles,” says Ben, “He’s currently the chairman of radiation oncology at the University of Pittsburgh and balances the work he does as principal investigator on many basic science endeavors with his clinical practice specializing in lung and esophageal cancer. He often comes to Boston for research collaborations. When he does, we get together for dinner. Those dinners are very interesting; we often talk about where I am in school and research. At any point in medical education, it’s easy to find something to worry about. But it’s really great to have as mentors parents who’ve been through the whole process and have achieved the goal that we all have when we enter medical school: to be able to assume the responsibility and privilege of taking care of people in need of medical help, along with their families, at an often emotionally harrowing time of life.”

Growing up, Ben gained firsthand knowledge of what it means to be an academic and a clinical physician. “When I was really young, when my father was at UMass, before we moved to Pittsburgh, I went to work with him. I think I was about four or five. I remember being so excited to see a latex glove shatter after it had been frozen by liquid nitrogen in the lab! When I was older, I eventually went to the clinic at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to see what it was like to interact with patients. I saw what my father and his colleagues did on a daily basis. I also went to some of their conferences and heard them do case reviews with the team of thoracic surgeons and others involved with the care of the patients with metastatic lung cancer. Just hearing all those great minds come together in one room and talk about a patient’s care, and in particular which combination of techniques in the medical and surgical arsenals would do the most good for the patient, definitely appealed to me.”

The appreciation that Ben has for the support and example of his parents extends to an earlier generation, to his grandfather.

“When my grandfather passed away, there was a memorial service for him at Ole Miss, the university where he taught,” says Ben. “People flew in from all corners of the world, it seemed, to express their appreciation for his research and his contributions as an educator.”

“That was a very powerful experience for me,” he continues, “just to see what kind of an impact a person could have despite having his or her early career aspirations changed drastically by a life-altering medical condition. My grandfather had planned to be a surgeon, but in 1946, during his surgical training, he contracted polio and lost the use of an arm and a leg, and consequently all hope of practicing in the way he had planned. He went back to his other loves—the basic science of medical physiology and teaching. His dedication and success in those areas made such an impact that people from seemingly all over the world came to his funeral to express their gratitude and say their final farewells.

I admired my grandfather. There was a sort of quiet charisma about him. There was definitely something powerful about a man like that—a man who inspired all ten of his children to pursue careers in medicine. That power and charisma has also extended to affect those in my generation. He was the kind of role model that really helps all of us grandchildren to keep things in perspective. My grandfather’s ability to respond to change and to reinvent himself in order to discover a way in which he could contribute to a better standard of care continues to encourage me to seek out new opportunities, to find my true calling in medicine.

“It’s been a great privilege to be in this family with so many wonderful people—and so many wonderful doctors—as supportive mentors.”

Benjamin Greenberger ’16 is a rising third-year student at HMS, currently pursuing a yearlong HHMI research fellowship at MIT. He was interviewed by Ann Marie Menting, editor of Harvard Medicine magazine.

Images courtesy of Benjamin Greenberger.