Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Harvard University and Harvard Medical School held virtual graduation ceremonies to ensure the health and safety of the Harvard communities. In-person celebrations will take place at a later date.
Greetings to the Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Dental Medicine Class of 2020. More than ever, I am grateful to be able to congratulate you on your remarkable achievements.
Today, we are convening across vast distances to celebrate together. I wish it were in person, but that time will come.
Through your excellence, hard work and commitment to alleviating suffering and improving the lives and well-being of your patients, you have earned the right and the privilege to be called doctor. I am so proud of you, and I am honored to now count you as colleagues.
You have dedicated your lives to a career in service to others. Few times in history has this commitment held as much meaning as it does today.
The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the world, and you are the newest members of a profession that stands on the frontlines of this struggle.
In 1936, when our country was still in the grip of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”
His words ring true for this generation, for your generation, of doctors.
And you have not only met immense expectations, you have exceeded them.
In the face of an era-defining pandemic, you responded. You founded a nationwide movement to support frontline health care workers, to aid vulnerable populations, and to inform and educate communities. You triaged thousands of phone calls with patients, you helped get PPE to those in need, you volunteered in every way you could. And you created a COVID-19 curriculum that has been adopted at medical schools and by health care professionals in 108 countries on six continents.
I wonder what previous generations would have thought of your efforts.
In 1918, as an unprecedented influenza pandemic swept the globe, Boston experienced one of the worst outbreaks in the U.S. Hospitals were overflowing with desperate patients and doctors and nurses were overwhelmed and personnel shortages ran rampant. Harvard Medical School students, led by Dr. George Minot, bravely confronted the crisis, examining patients and treating hundreds of sick student-soldiers in Cambridge.
I think they would be proud to know that you have followed in their footsteps.
Class of 2020, in the face of an era-defining pandemic, you experienced severe disruptions to your lives and education. To protect yourselves and others, you left the campus and isolated yourselves, you found new housing or returned home, you halted your lab work and your clinical rotations and you learned how to become doctors virtually.
I wonder what previous generations would have thought of your sacrifices.
In the midst of World War 2, Harvard Medical School reserved much of its class for training Army and Navy doctors. Vanderbilt Hall was, for a time, converted to barracks, and as such, the rigors of military life were enforced upon students, who surrendered many of the personal freedoms they once enjoyed. This came with considerable controversy, but a student named David John Bradley articulated a perspective that resonates to this day. In a letter penned in 1943 to my predecessor Dean Charles Burwell, he wrote:
It is not that I, in a perverted way, enjoy doing finger exercises at seven in the morning, or waxing floors, or washing windows, or making beds, or living away from a home which my wife and I have just put together in anticipation of a family. I find such things as unpleasant as any normal person would. But even when you add all these things up, and multiply them by the factor of our traditional American individualism, I cannot see that our complaints are more than a puff of dust in the smoke of this world war.
I think Dr. Bradley would be proud of your perseverance and your resiliency.
Throughout the 238-year history of our school, many generations have had a rendezvous with destiny. You, the Class of 2020, have matched them step for step, and I am certain that they would be proud that you are carrying on their legacy.
You have more than demonstrated your deep and profound commitment to others and to the mission of our school and profession.
You have published papers, founded companies and national organizations. You have battled for social justice here in Boston and around the world.
You have received awards and recognitions too many to enumerate here today, including one among you who will graduate summa cum laude, only the 20th student to have earned this distinction in our school’s history.
Now, you become doctors at a time when you are experiencing uncertainty, anxiety, perhaps even fear.
I know I felt all of those emotions when I was medical student. In the summer of 1984, I had my first clinical rotation as the AIDS epidemic raged across the country. We had only a primitive understanding of the disease, no treatments for the virus, and infection was almost inevitably fatal. I remember well the anxiety I felt starting a subclavian central line on an AIDS patient in the ICU. But I also felt the tremendous responsibility, the solemn duty to care for that patient.
That experience, and the ones that you will have in the coming months as you enter the health care workforce, is at the heart of what makes medicine a noble profession. As physicians, it is our fundamental calling to take care of patients. And while it is our responsibility to prepare meticulously and to take every measure to protect ourselves, our roles, by their very nature, come with inherent risks and personal sacrifices as we shoulder the tremendous responsibilities that come with being a doctor.
Serving in times of crisis is part of the inspiration that drew us to medicine, and no matter how much the world changes the central calling of our profession—to heal and to help those who need our talents, training, skills, and compassion—that will never change.
This is a historic moment in medicine, your very own rendezvous with destiny. It will shape the doctors, and the individuals, that you will become.
You will never forget this. And we will never forget you.
Again, to the Class of 2020, on behalf of our school, your teachers and mentors and the alumni community that you now join, I want to congratulate you on your remarkable achievements, and to thank you for all that you have done and will do in service to the world.
Class of 2020, congratulations again on becoming the newest doctors and dentists in the Harvard family. I hope you enjoy your celebration with family, friends and loved ones, and when it is safe to do so, we will be certain to celebrate together again in person.
We are proud of you and wish you all the best. I look forward to seeing all the tremendous things that you will accomplish in the future.