August 14, 2003


If you live, you can say that whatever happened to you was your destiny. If you die, you can't say anything.

When Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in 1756, his destiny was decided . It was decided by his father Leopold, a violinist and composer. Wolfgang and his sister were to be musicians. As child prodigies, they were exhibited before European royalty. It was a good business and the Mozart family thrived. Wolfgang went on to compose musical masterpieces and his sister was never heard from again. His father lived to the ripe old age of 68, which was quite an accomplishment in those days. Wolfgang died at 35, leaving behind a wealth of compositions.

The vast majority of people have their destinies decided by their parents. The usual thing is that a son follows in his father's footsteps, while a daughter takes after her mother. This is the way it has been since the ancestors of man walked on four feet.

There are exceptions to that rule of children following in the footsteps of their parents, and they are not only interesting, but might be at the root of human progress. If everyone followed in their parent's footsteps, there might be no computer programmers, or computers. Nor would there be any of the things that characterize today's industrial society.

When parents encourage their children to follow in their footsteps, they have the advantage of knowing where those footsteps might lead. They know the advantages as well as the drawbacks of whatever that career can lead to. A physician knows what the rewards of his successes are, as well as the pain of the failures. The parent who simply wants her son or daughter to be a doctor has no idea at all. Sometimes parental ambitions can be as ridiculous as, for example, the parent of a child with just one leg deciding that her boy should become a track star.

My childhood was one filled with curiosity. I loved to tromp the woods looking at things and turning over rocks to see what was underneath. If my mother had had her way, I would become a "Doctor." To her there was only one kind of doctor and he took care of sick people. He was a healer. I accepted my destiny as does almost every child. I had less of an idea about what being a doctor entailed than my mother did. My kid brother had a rare genetic condition called Von Recklinghausen's neurofibromatosis. He had a very visible tumor of his face. A nerve cancer took his life at age 27. Always, in the back of my mind, was an awareness of the helplessness of the medical profession. In the time of my childhood, a doctor couldn't cure infections. They were helpless against diseases that are easily curable today.

After high school, I went into the army and ended up in the medical department. It was the beginning of my medical education. I got to see, first hand, the successes and failures of medicine.

After W.W.II, I went to the University of California at Berkeley, because it was as far away from New York as I could get. I majored in pre-med. There must have been something in the back of my mind that didn't want me to be a physician because, while I got As and Bs in chemistry, physics and other subjects, I barely eked out Cs in embryology and comparative anatomy, which were considered the primary medical school qualifying courses. I applied to medical schools and was rejected. That was a wise decision on the part of the med schools, because if I had been admitted, I probably would have flunked out. I know this after having taught in medical schools. Taking care of sick people was not something that was suited to my temperament. I would have loved the successes, but would have been totally devastated by the failures. I know that because I had had a few failures in the army and I reacted to them in an extreme way. Fortunately, in my senior year, I discovered genetics and research . I loved it and I was good at it.

I fulfilled the destiny that my mother had planned for me. I became a doctor. To her, a doctor was a doctor. The fact that I didn't treat people didn't seem to bother her; and it suited me just fine.

I now know that Henley's poem "Invictus," that ends with "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul" is hogwash.

Next column

Return to the Personal Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page