A native of San Antonio, Texas, Joseph Gugenheim Jr., ’72 MD, had never been to Chicago until he got accepted to Northwestern University’s medical school (nicknamed “NUMS” by many alumni before it became Feinberg).
“I was accepted to several medical schools, but what convinced me to choose NUMS was when my interviewer told me, ‘If you are good enough to get in, we feel you are good enough to graduate,’” said Gugenheim. “This attitude was so different from the dog-eat-dog atmosphere at other schools.”
In addition to Northwestern’s spirit of comradery, Gugenheim quickly fell in love with Chicago —a relationship that has not waned since his graduation some 50 years ago. Along with his wife, Terri, he regularly returns for Alumni Weekend, where for the past several years, Gugenheim, a self-described amateur Chicago historian, has given walking tours to attendees. At this October’s reunion, he will host another set of tours. In preparation, we decided to ask the historian to share his own history.
Why did you choose to go into medicine and specialize in orthopedics?
I was attracted to medicine because of my love of science and my desire to help people. In college at Rice University, I knew I wanted to get fulfillment by straightening whatever was crooked. I had an orthopedic rotation at Northwestern and noticed the orthopedic residents appeared to be having fun. I chose the right field. Eight years into practicing, a radical new method of bone reconstruction came to the U.S. from Europe, giving physicians the ability to correct complex deformities and salvage bones that would have resulted in amputations or severe permanent disabilities only a few years earlier.
How did you take advantage of living in Chicago while you were a student?
We formed groups that would run to Lincoln Park or Grant Park. I bought a 10-speed bike (considered advanced at the time!) and would go for relaxing Sunday rides through the northern suburbs. I also visited museums whenever I had the opportunity.
Why is the surrounding environment so important when you are attending medical school?
If a med school is located in a city or in a neighborhood that offers no cultural or extracurricular activities, students will not develop a love for the nonmedical aspects of life.
What came first: your interest in Chicago history or Northwestern history?
I was interested in the history of Chicago from the beginning. I then became interested in the history of the Chicago campus — curious about these Gothic buildings in a downtown professional school campus. I later became interested in the history of the entire university.
What can physicians learn from what you’ve learned about teens?
Teens deserve to be heard. Parents and teens look to us as physicians for guidance and leadership about health-related issues and answers to health questions. For us to succeed in meeting their needs, we need to listen, really listen, to young people.
What are you exploring at the moment?
The history of epidemics in Chicago, especially polio. I was a child before the Salk vaccine became available, and we dreaded every summer when polio would become rampant. Chicago has encountered several epidemics: smallpox, cholera, and the 1918 influenza epidemic. The fear and misinformation that circulated with these epidemics repeated itself in many ways with COVID.
Leave us with a few facts about Feinberg.
I will focus on Abbott Hall, since some alumni lived there. Named for Dr. Wallace Calvin Abbott and his wife, Clara — who both died years before it opened in 1940 — it was the tallest dormitory in the world at the time. President Kennedy lived there during his early days in the U.S. Navy. Abbott made a fortune in the drug industry, but his real love was practicing medicine, leaving the operation of Abbott Laboratories to others while he made house calls on his bicycle.