This year is the 65th reunion of the Class of ’55. It is our last major reunion before we become part of the Old Guard. It may be the reunion that matters the most. For those of us who have survived, it comes at a time when our journeys, too, are nearing their end.
We are all old men now. There are no women in our class. In 1955, Princeton was still an all men’s university. If not for COVID-19, we'd be sitting around the tables, sipping our beers and speaking softly. It was a lifetime ago that we first saw the gothic vaults and arches of Princeton. The boys of yesteryear are now long gone, replaced by the older men we have become. Conversations will focus on classmates lost, the years at Princeton, our families, our accomplishments, and our legacies.
We did not transform the world as we thought we would, but we may have helped make it a better place. We will wonder, what will society remember about each of us and as a class? What will our legacies be? Did our lives and efforts really matter? Somerset Maugham maintained that our lives might be insignificant and whether we lived or died was immaterial.
Each of us has a story to tell. I think of my own journey that must be coming to a close. It is an account that may not be especially unique but, nonetheless, it is mine. I have become a respected and accomplished academic leader in the medical field of neurology and neuromuscular medicine both on the national and international scene. I think I still am. I helped introduce neurology to West Virginia, a state that, in the 1960s, was finally entering the era of modern medicine. I was an early faculty member of the state’s new medical school and tertiary care hospital. I would become the medical school’s chair of neurology for almost three decades.
There is a long list of scientific research and publications. Many provided new information and insights into the nature and treatment of various neurological diseases. I held important administrative positions in professional societies and on journal editorial boards and received lifetime achievement awards, an honorary degree, and other accolades.
A major responsibility of my academic life involved teaching and mentoring medical students, residents, and younger faculty. This occurred early in their medical careers at a time when one could make a major impact. In the process of caring for patients and performing research, we shared information, insights, knowledge, and philosophies with each other. We all influenced one another, but the effect was especially profound on the students/residents. There were the relationships with the thousands of patients for whom I cared, helping them deal with their medical problems and improve their lives. Lastly, I helped raise my children and significantly influenced their lives.
The impact of these events has lessened with the passage of years. There was a time when I envisioned my contributions to West Virginia University, its medical school, and the field of neurology as memorable occurrences. Having finally left for another institution, the medical school seems barely to recall my existence. The notice and attention that my research and publications received turned out to last a few decades before being transferred to the pool of common knowledge and were only occasionally worth an attribution. My influence on my family and younger colleagues persists but that, too, will lessen with time.
My contributions and personal legacy and those of my classmates may wane in importance and stature, but they will survive in a broader context. The medical school and its neurology department to which I devoted much of my life continue to flourish. My research efforts have been a small part of amazing new scientific advances that have changed the face of medicine and neurology in our lifetimes. We have gone from primitive imaging of the brain and body to sophisticated modern-day MRIs. We can diagnose diseases unimaginable to prior generations and treat them with medications and surgical techniques previously inconceivable. Recently, I have been involved in the current genetic revolution and participating in the alteration of genetic disorders that was not possible a few years ago.
The influence on my children and young colleagues may be less anonymous, but only for another generation or two. I think of two of my favorite professors at Princeton who may already be lost in the history of time. I have not heard their names mentioned in decades, although I was pleased to discover they both have Wikipedia sites. In the 1950s they were two of the brightest stars in the Princeton firmament. Walter Kaufmann, the famous philosopher and Nietzsche scholar, and Colin Pittendrigh, the father of biological clocks, both had profound influences on me and helped shape my life. Ultimately, the scientific attributions to them will drift into obscurity and all that may remain is their influence on my fellow alumni and me and our impact on future generations.
In the final analysis, legacies do exist but not as well-defined structural entities. Rather, legacies become more dispersed and communal like a swarm of midges in a tidal zone. My scientific and academic contributions have become a small part of a larger body of knowledge, a tiny piece of a greater puzzle. My students reflect my influences along with those of other teachers, and our lives are perpetuated through them.
I have no recollections of my great-grandparents. I never knew them and don’t even know their names. My memories of my grandparents are, at best, vague. Yet, I reflect their biological influences and, as far as I can guess, some of their views of life. My children and I are their legacies even if we cannot identify with them. The same can be said about my classmates and our contributions to our culture and knowledge.
If legacies matter, it is how our lives help shape the history of mankind. But in the end, personal legacies may not matter. In that regard, Somerset Maugham may well have been correct: that our individual lives may be immaterial. It is the composite group dynamic of the entire class of 1955 and the total alumni body of Princeton University that ultimately matters. What I have come to believe as much more important is that each of us was a good citizen of mankind and, citing the Bible’s Old Testament, we did justly and loved mercy in dealing with our fellow human beings.
Lud Gutmann ’55 is a professor of neurology at the University of Iowa.