William J. German
Our honored guest, Dr. William John German, comes to us as a beloved teacher and respected investigator. His lifetime has been devoted to medicine and to the Cushing tradition in neurosurgery in particular. He was imbued with this spirit through the late Professor S. Harvey, who trained with Dr. Cushing, and later through Dr. Cushing himself when the latter spent his years of retirement at Yale as Sterling Professor of Neurology.
Dr. German was born at McKeesport, Pennsylvania, October 28, 1899. When he was 14 years old his family moved to California, where he received his undergraduate education, earning the A.B. degree at the University of California at Berkeley in 1922. The following year he received his M.A. degree from the same institution, at the same time fulfilling the requirements of the first year of medical school. He then transferred to Harvard, which conferred upon him in 1926 the M.D. degree magna cum laude. Yale awarded him an honorary M.A. degree in 1948. While in medical school he belonged to the Alpha Kappa fraternity, and recently he was made an honorary member of the Yale chapter of Alpha Omega Alpha.
His surgical internship was served at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital from 1926 to 1927, and the following year was spent in Baltimore as a fellow in surgery at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. He served as assistant resident and resident in neurosurgery and surgery under Dr. Harvey at the New Haven Hospital from 1928 to 1931. He was appointed chief of neurosurgery at the New Haven Hospital in 1933. In this capacity he was part of the faculty of the Yale University School of Medicine, serving as instructor from 1930 to 1932; assistant professor from 1932 to 1938, during which time he worked with Harvey Cushing, who had come to Yale in 1934; associate professor from 1938 to 1948; and professor since 1948. His clinical acumen, sound judgment, and appreciation of patients as people have eminently qualified him for the leading position he holds in Connecticut medicine.
During World War II he entered the Navy as a lieutenant commander and shortly thereafter, upon his transfer to Hawaii, was given a spot promotion to commander. He served from 1944 to 1946 but has always managed to maintain his interest in the Navy. He retired in 1959 with the rank of captain, in which capacity he also served as officer-in- harge of the Naval Reserve Medical Company, New Haven, Connecticut. Maintaining the Naval tradition in the family are his oldest son, William, who in 1959 was serving with the rank of ensign on active duty, and his second son, John, who at the same time was a second year medical student at Yale serving in the Medical Reserve.
Dr. German had many affiliations with professional societies, several of which he served in administrative posts. He was president in 1953 of the Harvey Cushing Society, of which he was a charter member; vice president of the Society of Neurological Surgeons in 1955; and secretary-treasurer of the American Board of Neurological Surgeons from 1947 to 1952. In addition, he was a member of the American Medical Association, American Neurological Association, New England Neurosurgical Society, Society of
University Surgeons, and Association for Research in Nervous and Mental Diseases.
Bacon declared that "men should enter upon learning in order to give a true account of their gift of reason to the benefit and use of men." Through his influence upon a generation of medical students and a host of graduate students extending in numbers far beyond his own residents, Dr. German fulfilled the destiny of his gift and has attained a unique position as an outstanding teacher of neurosurgery.
His method of teaching was characterized largely by a system of guidance for a man's own intellectual growth. No man has been forced into a mold. In this respect he was akin to Socrates, who compared his own method to midwifery, for as it is the mother who labors and gives birth, so it is the student who is primarily active in the process of learning. The teacher merely assists in a natural process which might otherwise be more painful and might possibly fail without such help. This teaching takes place in an unhurried atmosphere, for Dr. German realized early in his career that no man could do everything. Therefore it was necessary to recognize what had to be done and to do that much well. Yet he always had time for the problems, both professional and personal, of his residents. Both he and Mrs. German welcomed at all times each resident into their home. Thus, those residents who served under Dr. German always felt a close and warm relationship with their chief.
His standing as a teacher stemmed, perhaps, from his never having ceased to be himself a student. He was always willing to accept new ideas and techniques, but in accepting them he tempered them with patience, judgment, and keen evaluation of their merit by an incisive insight into the core of the problem unfettered by nonessential facts. The breadth and scope of his interests are apparent in his bibliography. Quality rather than galley proof mileage were his aim, and he often advised ambitious authors to file their articles in the bottom drawer for a year, at the end of which time, if the paper still read well, it would be fit for publication and none the worse for the delay.
As a practitioner he showed a deep understanding of human nature and never allowed the neurosurgical problem to overshadow the patient's importance as a whole person. The little comforts so significant to the sick did not escape his notice, and he showed patient respect for the personal dignity of those entrusted to his care. I have drawn a picture of an outstanding person, in some ways perhaps a saint, but his attitude was so self-effacing that the patient always remained the primary figure. This quality is best exemplified in the story of one resident who mentioned at a conference that he had operated upon the patient. He was told later that at this institution we say the patient was operated upon. Dr. William German died in January 1981.