Jesse Steinfeld, former dean of the medical school and former U.S. Surgeon General
Jesse Steinfeld, M.D., the 11th Surgeon General of the United States and former dean of the School of Medicine, died Aug. 5 at age 87.
Never reluctant to take a controversial stance when he knew he was right, he stood up for the health of the nation in Washington, D.C., and for the role of the physician in Richmond, said his daughter, Mary Beth Steinfeld, M.D., a graduate of the Class of 1981.
“He spoke to our class on the first day of medical school. He remarked on the general appearance of the class. He said, ‘You all wore suits and were clean-shaven and professional looking when you came for interviews. Here you are now in shorts with long hair and beards. You don’t look like the same people.’ He told us our appearance and behavior will reflect on MCV. If we were going to be physicians we needed to look the part. It embarrassed me at the time, but later I realized how appropriate it was.”
He wasn’t one to mince words for a cause he believed in. Jesse Steinfeld’s passionate and outspoken fight against tobacco use put him on the national radar – and eventually led him to the MCV Campus.
A cancer researcher and top official at the National Cancer Institute, he was named Surgeon General in 1969 by President Richard Nixon. In office, he was outspoken about the dangers of smoking.
Under his leadership, cigarette manufacturers were required to strengthen the label on cigarette packs to the familiar, “Warning: The Surgeon General has determined that cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health.” He advocated for a ban on smoking in restaurants, airplanes and other public places, a visionary concept that took several decades to come to fruition.
By all reports, it was for these radical ideas that he was forced out of office by the Nixon administration.
When recruited onto the MCV Campus to be dean, Steinfeld had reservations about taking a job in the heart of tobacco country, said his daughter. “It was remarkable, given he was the former surgeon general and so prominent in his anti-tobacco stance.
“He questioned the Board’s wisdom. One of the board members told my dad that they wanted to prove that MCV was an academic center with academic freedom and that they had the power to appoint whomever they wanted. “I knew it was a big deal, but I didn’t realize how conscious the people who recruited him were about that freedom,” said Mary Beth Steinfeld, who serves as an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the UC Davis School of Medicine.
And surprisingly, said his daughter, Steinfeld had no conflicts or confrontations with area tobacco companies during his time in Richmond.
“I’ve been working in academic medicine most of my career and so over time I’ve come to appreciate how remarkable his jobs and achievements were.”
Jesse Steinfeld with his wife Gen and their daughters (left to right) Susie, Mary Beth and Jody
Steinfeld’s tenure on the MCV Campus, which ended in 1983, was marked by significant achievements, including increased research funding, increasing the number of residency positions, equalizing practice plans and stressing preventative medicine.
Though always professional and demanding of excellence in his students and staff, Steinfeld had a lighter side, recalled his daughter. “My class was full entertainers. They made up songs about our med school experiences.
“My mom and dad enjoyed having the med students over to their house at graduation for a barbecue, with chicken, beans and so on. The students seemed to like it, too.”
And so the Class of 1981 composed “Cold Beans at the Dean’s.”
“My father loved that song,” recalled Mary Beth Steinfeld.
Leaving Richmond for the Medical College of Georgia was a bittersweet time for the family, said Mary Beth Steinfeld. “They really liked Richmond.”
One of her fondest memories is sitting with her family at dinner, discussing ideas and people. “We had an ongoing habit of constantly debating ideas, and we were always trying to make our father laugh and be proud of us.”
Jesse Steinfeld was proud of Mary Beth’s medical career. “On my first clinical rotation, I took care of an elderly woman who was hospitalized due to heart failure. She needed to gain weight, so I stayed by her side and fed her a milkshake and talked to her. It took hours.
“I remember feeling sad for her when she told me her family didn’t visit. The next morning I told the intern, with pride, that she’d gained five pounds! The intern panicked, saying, ‘Oh no, her lungs are filling with fluid due to congestive heart failure!’
“Nevertheless, my father always remembered that I took the time to feed her that milkshake and listen to her. I think it made him proud of me.”
Jesse Steinfeld was a tireless advocate for preventative care and the importance of diet and exercise. When he was leaving in 1983, he told The Richmond News Leader, “As a faculty, we have to have both the time and the inclination to teach preventative medicine. Physicians, as a rule, think somebody else is telling patients about prevention….Kids are supposed to learn about health in school. But grade schools do a very poor job in teaching about the body and health.”
In later years Mary Beth Steinfeld learned that her father liked to share the benefits of his role as dean. Harold Maurer, M.D., then-Chairman of Pediatrics, recalled that when Main Hospital was built in 1982, Steinfeld got control of the emptied East Hospital. Mauer wrote to Mary Beth Steinfeld to share a memory: “He called a chairs meeting, at their house, to distribute the space. I took two floors, which allowed me to recruit a new division of cardiology. I recruited students to paint the floors on the weekends. Hal Fallon (Chair of Internal Medicine) took two floors and Lazar Greenfield (Chair of Surgery) took two floors. Cary Suter (Chair of Neurology) didn’t want any. What heady times! There are many great stories about Jesse as Dean at MCV.”
This is an expanded version of an article by Lisa Crutchfield that first appeared in the fall issue of 12th & Marshall.