In Response to: A Combustible Mix 

I walked into the legendary lecture hall as a Princeton freshman and sat down in an orange upholstered auditorium seat among a sea of sophomore pre-medical students. In walked a slender man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a notable spring in his step. In one hand was a bucket of colored chalk and in the other a mug made of pottery. He filled a small teapot with water from the sink built into the laboratory bench at the front of the classroom, lit a Bunsen burner, and placed the teapot on a metal support that was perfectly centered above the flame. Once the tea was made, the professor — always with a spark in his eyes — reached into the bucket of chalk and the unforgettable magic of a Maitland Jones organic chemistry lecture began. 

Each day that Maitland Jones lit a fire to brew his tea, he also ignited critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills in his pupils, challenging and inspiring generations of pre-medical students. He is singlehandedly responsible for putting me on the physician-scientist career path that I have been pursuing for three-and-a-half decades since, as a physician, scientist, and teacher. Whether organic chemistry is a “rite of passage” for becoming a doctor may be debatable, but the capacity to confront a formidable puzzle with the tools he provided, and then discover that you can independently solve it through a series of transformations to arrive at point Z from point A, represents the critical thought process — under time-pressure no less — that is essential both to succeeding in his class and to doctoring.

As chair of admissions for the Harvard/MIT MD-PhD program for 10 years, I have read thousands of medical school applications. A clunker grade in any one premedical course requirement has little to no effect on the outcome of a holistic review. In fact, the process of failing, learning from failure, persisting, and ultimately persevering represents the very grit and resilience that I seek in medical school applicants. Perhaps we should worry more about that “perfect” student who has never achieved anything less than an A, who will for the first time experience the inevitable failure that comes with pursuing discovery research or trying to cure an incurable patient. In those contexts, the formula of maximal effort in yields a guaranteed successful outcome simply does not apply. When the majority of experiments in the laboratory do not work, because after all you are seeking to find something brand new, critical thinking and creative problem-solving are the only means of moving from darkness to light. When you give everything you have got, blood-sweat-and-tears, to save a child’s life — such as in my profession as a pediatric oncologist — but your tireless efforts are ultimately not enough, you do not call it quits. You learn everything you can from that patient in the hopes of saving the next one.

Our American culture values, if not worships, the “greatests-of-all-time,” whether Serena Williams in tennis, Tom Brady in football, Muhammad Ali in boxing, Michael Jordan in basketball, or Simone Biles in gymnastics. Maitland Jones is, by every measure, the GOAT in teaching organic chemistry. If there was a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for teaching, he would be a clear winner. He has dedicated his life to it, nearly 60 years of teaching organic chemistry. Think about how remarkable that type of dedication is and the thousands upon thousands of students he has educated over those decades. Yes, he has high standards (thank goodness), and yes, organic chemistry is not for everyone. But a bad grade in his course can only preclude you from becoming a physician if you let it. Courses can be retaken to demonstrate mastery, whether during the regular school year or over the summer. I’m not sure I would want anyone taking care of me or my family who gives up that easily when confronted by adversity. Pursuing science and medicine is about leaving no stone unturned to uncover the answer to a profound scientific question or the antidote to an otherwise fatal disease. So, to Maitland Jones, I say thank you for setting such a high bar for your students, and shame on those who summarily fired you for being exacting. I, like countless others, will never forget you or your magnificent organic chemistry lessons, which changed our lives. Your legacy is felt by every patient we treat and every student we inspire. 

Loren Walensky ’90, M.D., Ph.D.
Newton, Mass.