Campus & Community

Federman embarks on second 50 years

5 min read

Everyone knows that time-honored habits die hard. So it’s no surprise that Daniel Federman, the outgoing dean for medical education, would find it difficult to leave Harvard after a half century here as a student and teacher.

To the relief and gratitude of many colleagues and friends, Federman will not be leaving Harvard Medical School (HMS) when Daniel Lowenstein takes over the position in July. Instead, Federman looks forward to his new role as senior dean for alumni relations and clinical teaching, which will allow him to devote more time to favorite projects.

“My life has been in this Quadrangle for 50 years,” Federman says. His bond to Harvard was forged as a freshman just after the Second World War. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College in 1949 and magna cum laude from HMS in 1953. Since then, he has spent nearly his entire professional career teaching, guiding, and healing at HMS and its affiliated hospitals.

Daniel Tosteson, dean of the faculty of medicine from 1977 to 1997, recalls that when he assembled his leadership team, his Boston colleagues “were almost unanimous that ‘you have to recruit Dan Federman.’” So he did, bringing Federman back from Stanford University, where he had been chairman of medicine for four years. Tosteson calls Federman a peerless teacher and credits him with a crucial role in the transition to the New Pathway, the innovative system of problem-based learning the School instituted in the 1980s. Others who have worked closely with Federman echo this praise. Joseph Martin, dean of the faculty of medicine, calls him “the consummate clinical teacher and scholar,” and notes that Federman communicates his enthusiasm for the art and science of medicine and helps students develop a deep curiosity about the mechanisms of disease.

Federman says his career has always revolved around personal relationships, and traces this interest back to his college days. He majored in psychology and sociology because he wanted to understand personality and human interactions. And, he recalls, “I entered the doctor-patient relationship very conscious of it as an interpersonal compact,” an awareness that has remained paramount.

“What hasn’t changed over the years is that connection is still at the center of both the doctor-patient relationship and the teacher-student relationship,” he says. “What has changed is the setting in which this takes place, and the science that backs it up.” The size of the faculty, the number of people involved in patient care, and the complexity of biomedical science have all grown enormously, and Federman worries that while physicians have more powerful tools than ever for healing their patients, the time available for human contact is steadily diminishing.

Ronald Arky, the Charles S. Davidson Distinguished Professor of Medicine, says “there is nobody who typifies the teacher so well as Dan – in the lecture hall, at the bedside, or in the conference room. He has no equal in his ability to take a very complex subject and put it in simple, lucid, and precise terms.” Daniel Goodenough, the Takeda Professor of Cell Biology, observes that Federman displays not only superb oratorical skills, but a gift for direct and heartfelt expression of emotion that inspires listeners.

Another of Federman’s new titles is director of alumni relations. Tosteson says both Federman’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Medical School’s history and his personal friendships with many of its alumni make him uniquely qualified for this job. Nora Nercessian, assistant Dean of alumni affairs and special projects, has worked with Federman on both alumni activities and other projects, including a series of multilingual medical phrase books for communicating with non-English speaking patients. “Dan’s generosity, his humanity, his profound sense of commitment to the patient-doctor relationship, and his ethical sensitivity propelled this project forward at every stage through many difficulties,” Nercessian says.

Federman is admired as a staunch advocate for students. Nancy Oriol, associate dean of student affairs, lauds his dedication to improving students’ experience of the Medical School. “He has used his legendary eloquence both to advance the voice of the students, individually and collectively, and to help build an ethical and humane medical educational environment,” she says. Students offer similar praise. “One gift Dr. Federman gives students is his sense that we are preparing not just for the next step in our training, but for a lifetime of being physicians,” says Stephen Martin, HMS ’02. Another student notes that “instead of relegating ethics to the ‘touchy-feely’ periphery of clinical care, Dean Federman made it central to our learning and fully deserving of our intellectual efforts.”

Federman’s major research interest is disorders of sexual development, and his 1967 book, Abnormal Sexual Development, has been credited as the first clear formulation of these disorders. He is a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and has served as regent, president, and master of the American College of Physicians.

Starting in July, Federman will focus his energies on two goals that he and Dean Joseph Martin are strongly committed to. The first is working with hospital faculty and medical staff to find ways to enrich the clinical learning and teaching experience. The second is raising money for student scholarships to reduce graduates’ massive debt burdens. He also looks forward to traveling with his wife and to spending more time with both his infant grandson and his mother’s rehabilitated piano. “I’ve just found a teacher who specializes in older people going back to music,” he says delightedly.