University of Minnesota

“It Isn’t Always Fun.” – Victor Hawthorne

Honored at the Royal College of Physicians and

Surgeons of Glasgow, May 1994

In the rough and tumble academic life of the United States, where much is chaos, confusion, competition, and self-interest, there are, nevertheless, opportunities of collegiality, bonding, respect, and affection. One of the institutionalized opportunities is in study sections, the review bodies of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). There, the chosen few labor under pressures of time, precision, and fairness in peer review of others’ grant proposals. The exercise is, in my view, among the higher academic functions, requiring the more elevated of human faculties.

After weeks of lone review of proposals, the study section members assemble for a 2- or 3-day intensive session to cover dozens of grant applications, each member serving either as first or second reviewer on a number of grants. Under the leadership of a chairperson reviews are presented and discussed in plenary session and finally, in quiet anonymity, voted on, with disapproval or approval and assignment of a score of scientific merit. This intense and demanding process brings reviewers together and exposes their fundamental skills, knowledge gaps, foibles, and quirks of personality. Surviving these meetings and the period of study section service, which can be a 4-year term, is an enriching  but not always ennobling experience.

I am happy to have had this experience in the company of Victor Hawthorne. In the late 1970s and early 80s, we were at first fellow reviewers of the Epidemiology and Disease Control Study Section, then Victor became chairperson. Gentlemanly, courteous, self-deprecating, shrewd in judgment and fair in process, Victor enlightened his colleagues while  he led us  to sound decisions. His wit, with its particular ethnic turn, and his profound wisdom, gained him the respect and affection of all who worked with him. His toughness, tempered in the Burma-Indochina theater in the Great War, served him well during contentious times in academia while he directed our study section, and as he chaired the program in epidemiology at Michigan.

In Sterling, Scotland, some years back, Victor introduced his colleagues of the International Society of Cardiology 10-day Seminar to the parade and pipes of the ceremonial haggis, finally serving us the ultimate dish of this rare occasion. He did not falsely belabor us, as other Scots had tried, with the notion that single-malt whiskeys were a sharp antidote to the cloying suet. We managed dutifully to get them both down, the whiskey and the haggis,  in awe at the ancient tradition.

Victor’s close colleague at Michigan, Stanley Garn, one of the great human biologists of our country and times, was his collaborator in many studies of adult onset obesity and diabetes. Garn quotes our honoree of today in a devastating criticism of multi-multivariate analysis and meta-analysis. Victor apparently has labeled, with characteristic wit and candor, the over-use and mis-use of these arcane methods (that have so taken epidemiology and biostatistics) as, “Fur coat and na’ drawers!”

Click to go onto the next section.