With a single exception they were all white. And with five exceptions all male.
Some were brilliant bordering on genius. Other, genius bordering on madness. One had played a cello-recital at Carnegie Hall; another had played a year of professional basketball. Six had written novels, two of which had actually been published. One was a lapsed priest. One was a graduate of reform school. All were scared to death.
What had brought them together on this bright September morning in 1958 was their status as first-year students at Harvard Medical School. They had gathered in Room D to hear a welcoming address by Dean Courtney Holmes.
His features could have come straight from a Roman coin. And his demeanor gave the impression that he had been born with a gold watch and chain instead of an umbilical cord.
He did not have to call for quiet. He merely smiled and the spectators hushed.
“Gentlemen,” he began,” you are collectively embarking on a great voyage to the frontiers of medical knowledge – which is where you will begin your own individual explorations in the yet-uncharted territory of suffering and disease. Someone sitting in this room may find a cure for leukemia, diabetes, systemic lupus erythematosus and the deadly hydra-headed carcinomas …”
He took a perfectly timed dramatic pause. And with a sparkle in his pale blue eyes he added,” Perhaps even the common cold.”
There was appreciative laughter.
Then the silver-haired dean lowered his head, perhaps to signify that he was deep in thought. The students waited in suspense.
When at last he looked up and began to speak again, his voice was softer, an octave lower. “Let me conclude by disclosing a secret – as humbling for me to reveal as for you to hear.”
He turned and wrote something on the blackboard behind him.
Two simple digits – the number twenty-six.
A buzz of bewilderment filled the room.
Holmes waited for quiet to return, drew breath, and then gazed straight into the spellbound auditorium.
“Gentlemen, I urge you to engrave this on the template of your memories: there are thousands of diseases in this world, but Medical Science only has an empirical cure for twenty-six of them. The rest is … guesswork.”
And that was all.
With military posture and athletic grace, he strode off the podium and out of the room. The crowd was too dazzled to applaud.
Prologue – Doctors, Erich Segal