Adam Interviews Medical Legend

Adam Interviews

It came down to a coin toss.

Dr. Seymour Schwartz and his wife, Ruth, who was also a doctor, when deciding where to start their careers, had to decide between two cities they hardly knew.

Rochester won, in a big way.

The Schwartzes moved here and each became something of a medical institution, with Ruth focusing in obstetrics and gynecology and Seymour in general surgery.

Together they also raised three children.

At 91, Seymour still comes to work six days a week at URMC, partly because he doesn’t have anyone to go home to Ruth passed in 1999 but also because loves his job.

He’s always loved it and it’s doubtful anyone has been more influential in the last century.

Dr. Schwartz literally wrote the textbook on general surgery, but his body of work is all over the map, so to speak.

Cartography began a hobby, but the field soon benefited from Schwartz’s intellectual drive.

Adam sat down with Schwartz in his office at Strong Hospital to talk about… everything.

Adam: When was the last time you performed surgery?

Schwartz: When I was 72. I did it deliberately. I operated on a close friend of mine, who had a malignancy. He did well, left the room and lived subsequently 14 years having had cancer originally… I must say it was difficult. I was not depressed when I gave up the (department) chair, but I was depressed when I gave up operating for about 6 weeks. Loved operating.

Adam: You still come into work. 91 years old. What keeps you coming back?

Schwartz: I don’t have anything else to do. I enjoy it actually. There are young people here. I live alone. I just like the environment and I keep working.  

Adam: Once you came here, what drove you to become so prolific in the literature part of this field?

Schwartz: I felt when you reach the stage that you put it down with pen and ink or a computer now and it will be published that it better be right.

Adam: I can’t imagine how much time you to spent writing and operating. How did you do it?

Schwartz: I didn’t sleep much. I’ve never slept much. I’ve been sort of an insomniac. When I did the book I spent 4-5 hours over the course of 3 years just working on the book in addition to my other material and that would be in the early hours of the morning. 

Adam: And at one point your wife told you to get a hobby…

Schwartz: When I got tenure as an associate professor here, she said I should get a hobby and I said go out and get me one. Her office was on Alexander St and just across the street was Gilby’s bookstore and she bought a secondhand book on cartography. I had never heard the word cartography before and she was right and she probably knew me better than I knew myself. I started to write on maps and having published the book on surgery, I was naive enough to think I could publish a book on cartography. I can’t express enough that so much was due to chance, I was fortunate, I don’t know.

Adam: It seems like you made a lot of your own luck.

Schwartz: I put in the work, but I had a lot of luck. And I continue to work on maps. American maps prior to 1800.

Adam: And you’re linked to the Smithsonian and other cartography groups…

Schwartz: And I’ve been on the advisory board of Library of Congress map section too.

Adam: What was it like to live in the same house as someone as prestigious as you in the medical field?

Schwartz: It was fine. She’s responsible for any success our kids have had, for my hobby. We always helped to strut the other person up and give them, make their lives easy. Neither one of us felt like we were the dominant person in the couple.

Adam: Any advice for upcoming doctors overall?

Schwartz: Try to create an ambiance around them in which they’ll enjoy their work every day. That pertains to physicians, surgeons, or anybody else. My concern is when I go to a party of one of my colleagues, a dinner party and I see the people as they’re talking about their daily life, I don’t see the sense of happiness that I saw in my own colleagues really. If I had the opportunity to do this again, what I did, I’d be totally content really.

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