April 14, 2000

Impact of ‘little things’explored at lecture

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Dean John Chapman spoke on how little things can make a big difference. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Impact of 'little things'explored at lecture

Imagine this: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's post-Pearl Harbor speech without the word "infamy."

It almost happened.

A draft of the speech actually shows that FDR edited the manuscript twice. The final version read "Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy," but two earlier drafts used "history" and "world history." Not quite the same impact.

"It was a little thing that ordered America into war and galvanized U.S. military steel," said Dr. John E. Chapman, Dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine at the third annual John E. Chapman Lectureship on the Ecology of Medicine and Medical Education.

Chapman's lecture, entitled "Little Things That Have Made a Big Difference," combined two of his favorite subjects; history and medicine.

"I have been a dean of one sort or another continuously since 1963; have been a dean at Vanderbilt since 1967; and have been "The Dean" at Vanderbilt continuously for 25 years. Throughout those years I have collected examples of how little things make big differences. If one wishes to make a big difference, one begins with little things, learning from history regarding how some basic principles of understanding and action apply to our environment," Chapman told the Light Hall audience.

"Learning to convert life experience into life's learning is an important learning tool which serves as a critical basis for understanding what I call virtual learning — learning from everything."

The lectureship was established by Dr. Richard E. Strain Jr., a 1975 VUSM graduate, in memory of his father, Dr. Richard E. Strain Sr. The annual lecture is devoted to subjects that address the changing role of medicine in our culture.

Chapman's historic examples of little things that became big things included a letter notifying George Washington that he had been elected president and a not-so-important looking note from President Harry Truman that authorized dropping the atomic bomb. The note from Truman to a military aide read "your suggestions have been approved. Release when ready but not sooner than Aug. 2."

"Things don't have to look important to be important. This turned out to be one of the most important documents of the 20th century," Chapman said.

Chapman said history influences how current trends in medicine are applied.

"We can use history in making decisions cogent, useful and positive, all working in the context of responsible initiatives," he said. "Current trends in medical education cry out for your involvement and my involvement."

One of the challenges of the 21st century is how to best continue teaching the massive amounts of information that medical students must absorb.

"First-year students must learn 48,000 facts and 30,000 principles. That's 24 new facts and concepts an hour. We have more to do and less time to do it. How do we address this?"

The problems of funding a medical education must also be addressed, he said.

"The current methods of funding medical education as a sacrifice or parasite on other endeavors is no longer feasible or acceptable. The product of the medical school is knowledge: knowledge in action or service; knowledge shared, or education; and knowledge discovered or research. Knowledge is our product, the student and patient our priorities."