Dr. Paul Seebohm Eulogy

Last week, Dr. Paul Seebohm passed away at age 100. Few had as large an impact on the shape of today’s Department of Internal Medicine and primary care in the state of Iowa. At his funeral service on January 12, Dr. François Abboud, former Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine, delivered the following moving eulogy, which he was gracious enough to share with those who were unable to attend.

Dr. François Abboud

“Surely the man has not an enemy in the world!!”

To live over 100 years during the most belligerent 20th century and early 21st Century without an enemy in the world I would say, if he was catholic he should be canonized.

Surprisingly as I was reading last night some of the speeches that honored Dr. Paul Seebohm on the occasion of the naming of his conference room in the Eckstein building, the late Bill Lillibridge (who was associated with the Dean’s office for 35 years) has this to say about Paul’s kindness and thoughtfulness, his wit and his amiable patience in dealing with both friends and potential adversaries. “If only he’d been catholic, Paul would have made a great Pope.” Why not? I say.

Pope Francis preached “patience, closeness and tenderness” and Paul lived patience, closeness and tenderness. But, he also lived much more; integrity, quiet determination, disarming candor, visionary leadership, respect, trust and humility.

Speaking of humility, one measure of a person is often what he thinks of himself and others.  In Paul’s response to the accolades describing his amazing accomplishments at a dedication ceremony he had this to say to the audience:

There is really not much more to add to the story of my professional life than told to you by Bob, Frank, Jack, Hal and Bill. Jack and Frank have said all these about me at one of my previous retirements,  and they always leave out a few things in my life that were very important – my failures!

 In 1934 I failed to try-out with a big band to play trombone. 

At the big football game between Hughes High and Withrow High before 10,000 people, I dropped my baton when I threw it over the goal post crossbar.

In 1935 as I was about to enter the Annapolis Naval Academy, I failed my eye examination (no spectacles allowed in those days). “By the way, I also failed my military eye exam in Egypt, and that is how I came to Iowa.” And lastly, Paul continued, I failed to beat out Arnold Spielberg for the highest 4-year science average in high school.  Arnold was later to be known as Stephen Spielberg’s father.

There are, of course, other failures mainly on the golf course that I would rather not mention.

Ever since I entered medical school in 1937, I have been fortunate to have had positive professional experiences and do believe I was privileged to have touched all aspects of medicine from the academic center to the halls of organized medicine, the State and Federal regulatory agencies and the military.”

Let me now remind you how it came that Paul Seebohm spent the last 68 years of his amazing academic life in Iowa.

Paul was born and raised in Cincinnati, went to Oberlin College and graduated from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in 1941. He married Dorothy Eberhardt at the end of his internship in Madison, WI in 1942. After 4 years as flight surgeon in the US Air Force he returned to Cincinnati for his residency where he met Bill Bean who was on his way to Iowa City to become chairman of Internal Medicine.

I am not sure that many of you know that one of the highest ragweed pollen counts in the world is in Iowa.  You may ask what good purpose could that possibly serve? What blessing in disguise was the good Lord intending for Iowa with that allergenic atmosphere?  You guessed it, the good Lord had Paul Seebohm in mind.

When Bill Bean came to Iowa, Bill thought that with his charm and wit, he could entice a young Paul Seebohm to come to Iowa with him.  Paul decided not to come to Iowa right away.  Instead he went one year to the Robert Cooke Institute of Allergy at Roosevelt Hospital in New York.  This was where he found out that Iowa was really the battleground where he could wage the war against allergic diseases.  Of course, he made Bill Bean believe that he came to Iowa because of Bill’s irresistible spell.

From his small allergy clinic in the northwest corner of the old University Hospitals for more than 20 years, he took care of patients with asthma and hay fever day in and day out.  He created and established the first and only Allergy Division in the state and it resonated throughout the US. His national recognition and leadership resounded.  He joined the national Academy of Allergy in 1950, rose in its ranks to become its president in 1966.  Now, most past presidents of societies do not generally continue to contribute to their societies, but with Paul, it was just the contrary.  He received the highest accolade of the Academy in 1974 as a Distinguished Service Awardee.  He continued to work on the Professional Standards Committee and the Liaison Committee with the Allergy Foundation, and for 20 years after his presidency.

He served and established the Subspecialty Board of Allergy of the American Board of Internal Medicine and was its national chairman. His certificate was the first to be issued by the new board.

In the AMA, he served as secretary of the AMA Section Council on Allergy and was its chairman.  At the National Institutes of Health, he served on the Allergy and Immunology Research Committee of the NIH and was its chairman. In the Food and Drug Administration, he served on the panel on Review of Allergenic Extracts and was its chairman.

How and why did he gain the trust of such a variety of constituencies in the discipline of allergy?  I believe it is because of 3 reasons.

First, he was a sensitive and caring physician.  He exuded confidence and inspired trust.  Those who observed him at the bedside have always marveled at the ease with which he establishes rapport with his patients.

Secondly, he was a scientist-physician.  His early work on the effect of cortisone and adrenocortical hormone on passively transferred delayed hypersensitivity has been a classic and his work published in the JCI on the pulmonary function in obese persons is another classic.  He worked with Hal Richerson on anaphylactoid reaction to human gamma globulin and on the nasal airway responses to exercise, for which I was a volunteer, and obviously an important contribution in the field.

Thirdly, he had vision.  One of the leading figures in the National Academy of Science and in American immunology, Dr. Frank Austen, has told me that Paul was among the earliest scientists who believed very early in the discipline of immunology as the critical basic discipline in the field of allergy.  This vision has certainly been an important factor in his recognition as a world leader in the field and this was at a time when allergic diseases were thought of as psychosomatic diseases.

So all that was on the national scene, and his accomplishments at Iowa have been just as phenomenal.

How many Executive associate deans succeed in being selected as Iowa Internist of the Year?

How many become presidents of the Iowa Medical Society?  The significance of that appointment is enormous.  It symbolized the decades of close rapport between the practicing physicians and our College of Medicine.

How many deans can claim to have been Presidents of the State Board of Health or to have served on the Board of Directors of the Health Policy Corporation of Iowa and several Governors’ Advisory Boards?

Between 1970 and 1990 it seemed as if his life was devoted to improving primary health care and professional medical education in almost every county in Iowa. His CV lists 250 presentations in the state of Iowa. Single handedly almost he impacted access to care in our state. He worried about the care of the poor, the quality of care, the depersonalization of care in managed care systems, and the future of medical education in the current environment.

As Executive Dean, he was able to create a Family Practice Training Program which had a major impact on primary care of patients throughout the state and provided an element of service to Iowans that had been sorely missing.  The success of this program in Iowa is a true monument to his persistence and farsightedness.

In the Dean’s Office, he always seemed to be in control. Of course, Jack Eckstein, the dean, had given Paul the easy job of allocating research space that did not exist. So a common scenario would be that some department chairman, like Frank Abboud, would storm into Paul’s office, red in the face, foaming at the mouth, because of the fact that he would lose a faculty unless research space is provided.

Being an allergist, the cool and collected Paul simply “desensitized us.”  We come in fuming in anger, he disarmed us, gave us a “shot in the arm” made up of his quiet and calming reflections and sent us away smiling, but without research space.

He was a master of the art of persuasion, problem solving and the resolution of conflict.

In contrast to the flamboyant pace of his passionate University life his private life with Dorothy and Karen reflected their deep personal values and characteristic commitment to family and church.  Their roots became deep in Iowa.  They stayed close to home. Karen told me they went to Europe once and once went to Arizona.  The pleasures Paul pursued were simple. He loved cookies; playing golf was frustrating to those like the late Jack Hoak who had to play with him, that was despite his miraculous hole-in-one on Finkbine #4 that made the “Noon News” one day and for which he says he received more congratulations for than anything else in his life.

Now it is time to ask what was the reason for the brilliant life time success and the enormous legacy of this man who is described in the Good Book of James as “Quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger”.  What is the reason for his taciturn genius?

I will let him answer you by reading what he says about himself.

“But the real secret behind any career success I might have achieved is my wife, Dorothy. We married one day and I entered the service the next day and Dorothy went with me.  She found the housing crowded in the military towns, learned to live out of food lockers and make 13 moves in 4 years and worked to put me through residency (that was in $30.00 a month days) after the war.

I always regretted having cut my cultural education at Oberlin short to enter a shortened pre-med program at Cincinnati, for once I was in medicine there was little time to look back or even laterally. But I was saved when I met Dorothy on a return visit to Oberlin.  She graduated in Medieval history and English and brought to our marriage a cultural agenda. When it comes to rhetoric, European history, art and music appreciation, French and now national politics, Dorothy is my resource, but best of all Dorothy and our dear daughter, Karen, have always been very supportive of all my career moves and no moves.  No return to a Park Avenue practice in New York. No move to NIH. No move to the University of Wisconsin.”

Paul ends by saying: “Best lest you think I am not head of our household, I want you to know, I wear the pants – that is after Dorothy picks them out.”

Now before we say good-bye and adieu to you, Paul, let me one more time say why we love you.

Without fanfare, you have taught us loyalty and equanimity.  Your loyalty is “marble-constant” and your fidelity unfailing.  Your equanimity during controversy has taught us self-confidence and tolerance.

From you, we learned never to compromise on professional ethics and yet avoid self-righteousness.  We learned how to listen to hospital lawyers and yet avoid delegating outcomes to them, and we learned how to make just and difficult decisions and yet retain humaneness and sensitivity.  In sum, you have taught us the greatness of the human potential. Throughout all of this, silence more than speech characterizes your genius.  I would like to end with a quote from Gibran on silence as a concluding statement in your honor and your memory.

“Great truth that transcends nature doesn’t pass from one being to another by way of human speech.  Truth chooses silence to convey her meaning to loving souls.  There is something greater and purer than what the mouth utters.  Silence illuminates our souls, whispers to our hearts and brings them together.”

Paul, you have illuminated our souls, you have whispered to our hearts, and you have brought us together.

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