- Tinsley Harrison, M.D.: Teacher of Medicine by Jr. James Pittman
Dr. Tinsley Harrrison once said, “Learning is more a matter of the heart than the brain”(xiii). This aphorism sums up the educational philosophy of the cardiologist who established the University of Alabama at Birmingham as one of the preeminent medical centers in the nation. Dr. Tinsley Harrison was an accomplished medical researcher, trusted physician, and beloved educator. His passion for knowledge, both as a student and teacher, was evident throughout his life. In this biographical sketch, Dr. James A. Pittman Jr., a student of Harrison, brings this passion to light. Chronicling the development of medicine from the turn of the [End Page 372] twentieth century to the modern era, Pittman also tells a story much bigger than Harrison. During this relatively brief period, medicine and medical education underwent drastic changes that revolutionized healthcare, advanced the professionalization of physicians, and created the specialization of medical fields. Harrison was at the center of this revolution.
The book is arranged chronologically, beginning in 1900 with a discussion of the patients Dr. Groce Harrison treated on the day his son Tinsley was born. In this opening chapter, Pittman captures the somber reality of medicine in rural Alabama at the turn of the twentieth century. The high death rate for conditions considered minor ailments just fifty years later puts into perspective the advancements in modern medicine. Doctors today will likely never treat a patient with poliomyelitis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, scurvy, beriberi, rickets, typhoid, malaria, or smallpox—diseases that devastated patients and families in the early twentieth century.
The world in which Harrison was born–a rural town in Talladega County–still coped with the economic, political, and social aftermath of the Civil War. At age six, Harrison and his family moved to Birmingham, where he received a top-notch education that fostered his love of learning and teaching. Harrison was an exceptional student. Graduating from high school at age fifteen, he went on to complete his undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan (1919) and earn his medical degree at the John Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore (1922), followed by a two-year residency at Harvard’s Peter Dent Brigham Hospital (1924) and a senior residency at Hopkins (1925). During this formative time, Harrison developed lifelong friendships with physicians who would make major contributions to the advancement of medicine and medical education over the next decade.
In 1925, Harrison became chief resident in medicine at the new Vanderbilt Hospital, as well as head of the chemical laboratory in the department of medicine. Medical education was undergoing a revolution ignited by Abraham Flexner’s 1910 publication criticizing the poor quality of the field in the United States. Flexner’s Report called for improved admission standards and curriculum, and the closing of nearly half the medical schools in the country. As a result, Vanderbilt revamped [End Page 373] their program and created an exceptional medical school. Harrison, fueled by the excitement and developments at Vanderbilt, immersed himself in work and quickly distinguished himself as a brilliant medical researcher, particularly in cardiology.
In 1941, after sixteen years at Vanderbilt, Harrison became chair of internal medicine at the Bowman Gray School of Medicine in Winston– Salem, North Carolina. However, after four tumultuous years, Harrison accepted a position in Dallas to help establish the Southwestern Medical College. By 1950, professional strain and personal problems led Harrison to accept an offer from the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine (UAB) to become acting Dean and help overhaul the failing medical program. This year also marked the initial publication of what would become one of the most used and recognized books in medicine, Principles of Internal Medicine (now titled Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, in its eighteenth edition). With this publication, Harrison’s fame as a distinguished physician and educator skyrocketed, which helped attract well-respected physicians from across the nation to Birmingham. Largely due to Harrison’s influence during this pivotal time, UAB became a...