Dr. Zorba for Surgeon General

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  • 08/01/2005

William Osler said “the young physician starts life with 20 drugs for each disease, and the old physician ends life with one drug for 20 diseases.” That’s a nice aphorism, but it has a deeper meaning. Dr. Osler recognized that while young physicians start their career on the cutting edge of medical science, they ultimately learn, through trial and error that the practice of medicine isn’t primarily about medicine, it’s about the patient.

Let me tell you about another famous physician, one who has influenced millions of people around the world, Dr. David Zorba, chief of neurosurgery at the renowned County Medical Hospital during the 1960s. You might remember him better if I remind you of his often-repeated mantra, Man, woman, birth, death, infinity. If we understand the need to make today a foundation for tomorrow, then infinity is a concept we should consider.

Dr. Zorba was mentor, father confessor, friend and teacher to Dr. Ben Casey, the star of the television series of the same name that ran from 1961 until 1966. In Ben Casey the limits of medicine, the ethics of physicians, and the role of medicine in society were thoughtfully examined. Dr. Zorba’s hospital functioned as a microcosm of the larger society it served. The professionals presented in Ben Casey were a tight group sworn to an oath of altruistic service. The majority of physicians in the employ of County General were not terribly inflated with self-importance. Their world was not so far removed from the world inhabited by those they helped. The problems that plagued the world outside the walls of County General could often be found within as well.

During their work at County General, Dr. Zorba and his colleagues came into contact with representatives from every level of society. Part of that contact was learning about and making judgments on certain societal issues and problems. Racial tension, drug addiction, the plight of immigrants, child abuse, and euthanasia were a few of the issues treated in Ben Casey. Medical malpractice wasn’t one of them.

How far we have come in just under half a century. Today, as in the time of doctors Zorba and Casey, physicians are often viewed as subjects of admiration. But, unlike those halcyon days at County General, physicians are more and more viewed with disdain as spendthrift by insurance providers, potentially liable by the tort bar, as in the pocket of big pharmaceutical companies by the media, and as heartless cogs in a malfunctioning health care system by our patients. Today, rather than making judgments about society, society is making judgments about us. We have moved from the leadership of Dr. Zorba to that of Dr. Phil.


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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