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New York City
May 2001

Innovator: Cornell’s Medical Dean, Antonio Gotto
by Jacob M. Appel

Much humor has developed surrounding the relationship between physicians and attorneys. From the medical man’s point of view, “doctors heal the poor and the sick, while lawyers sue them.” So it is a breath of fresh air to hear such a prominent physician as Cornell Medical College Dean Antonio Gotto admit that he once wanted to serve at the bar. “It was a point of contention between me and my father,” he explains. “I wanted very much to become a lawyer. But in my family there were only three acceptable occupations: You could become a physician, you could teach, or you could go into theology. So on this one, my father won.”

“I’ve never regretted my choice though,” he adds.

Gotto’s academic credentials place him at the cutting edge of science. After completing his undergraduate work at Vanderbilt University, he won a coveted Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford and earned a doctorate in biochemistry before taking his medical degree. In England, he studied under Nobel Laureate Hans Krebs. Prior to becoming the Dean of Weill Medical College of Cornell University, he studied lipid disorders and coronary heart disease risk at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

Medical education was decidedly different when Gotto attended medical school: “Back then, senior physicians would offer anecdotes from their practice and students would learn from them. Now we’ve shifted from anecdote based medicine to evidence-based medicine,” he says. Cornell’s curriculum emphasizes problem-solving skills. “It’s not enough to think about knowledge, we need to think about outcomes.” While many physicians demonstrate that they’ve learned from ongoing training at professional conferences, few actually apply that knowledge in their practices. “We emphasize problem-based learning characterized by small groups and self-teaching with an emphasis on how to acquire information. Medicine is voluminous, and one of the challenges our students face is not being able to know everything,” says Gotto. He concedes that such an approach is “hit-or-miss” and that some topics may not be covered in depth, but points out that Cornell students’ board scores rose significantly after the school changed to its more progressive curriculum.

Gotto stresses the humanistic aspects of medicine. He’s brought actress Catherine Chalfant to discuss her role in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Wit, about a woman dying from cancer, and Sophie’s Choice author, William Styron, to speak about his ongoing struggle with depression. A new program permits medical students to visit the Frick Museum to examine paintings with an art historian and a medical school faculty member. “It sharpens the power of observation,” says Gotto.

Another trend under Gotto’s tenure had been the globalization of medicine. Currently over half of third- and fourth-year students take a two-month elective abroad. Gotto, a long-time advocate of international education and a former member of the Rhodes Scholar Committee, began a US-Italy program in cardiovascular medicine when he was teaching at Baylor. He founded the Office of International Medicine and transferred the US-Italy program to New York. He has also developed an affiliation with the American hospital in Istanbul, and recently, Cornell made headlines by entering an agreement to open a medical campus in the Persian Gulf Emirate of Qatar. Taught by Cornell faculty, the program will confer Cornell degrees upon the students. Gotto emphasizes that this will substantially improve healthcare in the region.

“We’re known as a research institution, but more than forty percent of our graduates go into primary medicine,” explains Gotto. Fifteen percent are in the competitive MD/Ph.D. program that utilizes the resources of Cornell, Rockefeller and Sloan-Kettering. “We’ve also established a program in family medicine,” notes Gotto. It is currently the only family medicine program in Manhattan.

Despite his extensive accomplishments, Dean Gotto is quick to point out his humble origins. “My great-grandfather was a stone mason from Genoa,” he reminisces. “He came here one hundred four years ago and helped build the Tennessee State Capitol.” It seems building, whether monuments or a medical school, must run in the blood.

Jacob Appel, a Harvard Law student, is also completing a Ph.D. at Columbia University.


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