Eugene Braunwald: Maestro Of American Cardiology  pg. 4

At New York University, however, Braunwald decided he was more interested in biology than engineering. He wanted to become a physician.

Getting into medical school was much more difficult than it is today. At the time, medical schools had strict quotas limiting the number of Jewish enrollees, and returning war veterans (appropriately) were given first priority. Braunwald was the last student admitted to New York University’s medical school class of 1952. (He was also the first out, graduating as the top student in his class).

“My admission to medical school was the most important day of my professional life,” he says. “All the pressures were behind me. I loved every moment of medical school.”

Like many financially disadvantaged students of that era, Braunwald, on a full tuition scholarship, lived at home and commuted by subway, toting his microscope, slides, Gray’s Anatomy, and box of cadaver bones back and forth with him to class every day.

Also, for the first time since he left Vienna, Braunwald took advantage of the outstanding musical performances the city had to offer. He volunteered to be an “extra” at the Metropolitan Opera, and was paid a dollar a night for his role as a spear-carrier in the Met’s productions of Aida and La Tosca. He gave up his “operatic career” once he began his internship.

Electricians and plumbers

Braunwald’s instructors at NYU included two Nobel laureates: fellow Austrian exile Otto Loewi, M.D., recognized for seminal discoveries relating to the chemical transmission of nerve impulses; and pioneering molecular biologist Severo Ochoa, M.D.

Braunwald also studied under Colin MacCleod, M.D., who co-authored the pivotal 1944 paper that established DNA as the bearer of hereditary information, and Homer Smith, M.D., a founding father of comparative physiology and nephrology. Medical history, says Braunwald, “was unfolding all around me. Luckily, I realized what was going on.”

In the early 50s, NYU had originated the then novel (and now commonplace) practice of offering a three-month elective to medical students. With the engineering mantra playing in his memory, Braunwald chose for his elective a research rotation in cardiology, studying the hemodynamics of heart failure under the guidance of Ludwig Eichna, M.D., who ran one of the nation’s first research cardiac catheterization laboratories.

“Cardiology is in many ways a hybrid between engineering and biology,” Braunwald says. “Cardiologists can be divided into electricians and plumbers. Those who deal with rhythm disturbances are the electricians and those who deal with disturbances of cardiac pumping are the plumbers.” Disturbances in the operation of either the rhythm or the pump can cause the heart to fail.

The weekend after graduating from NYU medical school, Braunwald married his college and medical school classmate, Nina Starr Braunwald (1928-1992), who would later achieve pioneer status as a cardiothoracic surgeon. In 1960, she would lead the first team to successfully replace a human heart valve, which she had designed.

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