People believe that the process of becoming a physician is the natural reward for those who have an aptitude in science and a willingness to work hard. For many of us, however, it’s not always that easy. Along the way to realizing our dream, some of us wind up hitting a pothole or two. When this happens, help may be needed. Sometimes that help can come from an unusual source.
I met Alex Novikoff in the men’s room on the fifth floor of the Ullmann Building at Albert Einstein College of Medicine on a warm afternoon in early June 1974, while pursuing summer research in the department of biochemistry. I was drawn to work at Einstein not only because of its excellent scientific reputation but also because of its “humanistic” values, which included a strong opposition to any form of discrimination.
Dr. Novikoff had entered the men’s room in order to urinate; I’d entered it 15 minutes earlier in order to have a good cry. Concerned at finding me standing in front of the sink consumed with tears, Dr. Novikoff asked what was wrong, and if there was anything he could do to help.
I’d run in there after finding out I’d been rejected from the Tulane University School of Medicine. My mother had called the lab after finding a letter from the school’s admissions committee in the mail. I didn’t need to hear any more than the letter’s first line: “We regret to inform you…” it read.
Tulane had been my last chance. Although each of the other 34 schools to which I’d applied the previous fall had already rejected me, Tulane had placed me on its waiting list. But now, with this rejection, I realized that come September, I would not be attending any medical school in the United States.
My eyes had filled with tears as soon as I’d heard my mother’s words. Not wanting my colleagues in the lab to see me crying, I’d run into the men’s room and begun bawling. By the time Dr. Novikoff came in to empty his bladder, I was beginning to get myself back under control.
Although I’d been working in Dr. Englard’s lab as a summer volunteer for the past two weeks, Dr. Novikoff and I hadn’t yet met. I knew little about him—just that he was the head of the lab down the hall, that with the copious amount of curly gray hair that stuck out from his head in all directions, he looked like the quintessential mad scientist, and that, though he’d acknowledged me with a nod whenever we’d passed in the hall, he didn’t seem all that outgoing or welcoming. So it was a surprise when, seeing me standing in front of the sink crying, he asked if he could help.
I explained what had happened. “I’ve wanted to be a doctor all my life,” I managed to get out between the sobs and sniffling and gasping for air. “But now it looks like I’m not going to be able to do that.”
Novikoff flashed a wry smile at me. “How old are you?” he asked.
“Twenty-two,” I told him.
“Twenty-two…” he repeated. “You’re working in Sasha’s lab?” I nodded.
“Are you planning on staying on in the lab?”
“I’d originally planned to be here until I started medical school in the fall,” I responded. “But now that that’s not going to happen, I don’t know what I’m going to do. It’s like my life’s already over….”
“Your life is not over,” Dr. Novikoff replied. “Your life hasn’t even started. You’re a baby. Listen, you have the world at your feet. You can do whatever the hell you want to do. All you have to do is set your mind to it and stick to the plan. You can accomplish anything you want to accomplish.”
Having finished, he took his place next to me at the sink and began washing his hands. Before leaving, he said, “Now get back to the lab, and get on with your life.”
I washed my face and headed back to the lab. The fact that this very senior scientist who didn’t know me from Adam had cared enough to give me a pep talk had really touched and inspired me. And I knew he was right. I vowed to begin looking into other options, convinced that no matter what I needed to do, come September, I would be going to medical school somewhere in the world.
Later, I began to find out who this Dr. Alex Novikoff actually was. After hearing his amazing story from my colleagues in the lab, I found myself even more inspired by the man’s words.
Dr. Novikoff had been a founding member of Einstein’s faculty. An internationally known cell biologist, he’d made major contributions to science and medicine, and come close to winning a Nobel Prize for his work on the team that discovered and characterized lysosomes. But he was known for much more than his contributions to biology. In 1947, after getting a Ph.D. at Columbia and working as an instructor at Brooklyn College, Novikoff secured a full-time position at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. For five years, he quietly went about his work, carrying out his research, publishing papers, teaching and securing grants.
But in the early 1950s, his idyllic career was interrupted. For a brief period in the 1930s, while he was teaching in Brooklyn, Novikoff, a lifelong Marxist, had been a member of the Communist Party. In April 1953, at the height of the McCarthy era, having been named as a “fellow traveler” by two colleagues from Brooklyn College, he was subpoenaed to testify before the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Faced with the committee’s request that he provide the names of two additional colleagues from Brooklyn College, Novikoff steadfastly refused, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Within months, Novikoff was fired by the University of Vermont. In justifying the dismissal, the university stated that he’d failed to exhibit “the qualities of responsibility, integrity and frankness that are fundamental requirements of a faculty member.” Although he had a national reputation and some grant funding, he could not find another job. No educational institution would hire a scientist who had been blacklisted. And so, at age 40, with a wife and two children, Alex Novikoff appeared to be unemployable.
In desperation, he wrote to anyone he could think of who might help him secure a position. In June 1953, having heard that a new medical school named for Albert Einstein was being built by Yeshiva University in the Bronx, Novikoff wrote to Professor Einstein in Princeton, pleading with him to intercede on his behalf. On July 4, Einstein wrote back to Novikoff, agreeing to put in a word for him with the directors of the new school. On July 9, only five days later, Novikoff received a letter from Dr. Harry Zimmerman, the new school’s associate director, confirming the intercession of Professor Einstein and assuring Dr. Novikoff that when the task of staffing the school got under way, he and his work would be considered. Two years later, Novikoff moved to Einstein, becoming a founding member of the department of pathology. Over the next 32 years, he made major contributions to science.
Having almost had his professional life ended as a result of his political beliefs, Alex Novikoff had known true adversity and had conquered it. Hearing his story, I realized that my failure to gain acceptance to an American medical school was insignificant compared with what he’d overcome. And after hearing this story, I knew that if he had succeeded, I could succeed as well.
In the next few days, I managed to secure a seat in the preregistration class at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. It wasn’t ideal, and I was going to have to leave home and be separated from my family and friends for six years, but I understood that this was my chance. Later that summer, on my last day at work, I entered Dr. Novikoff’s lab to thank him and tell him how much his words of encouragement had meant to me. “What words of encouragement?” he asked. “What are you talking about?” When I reminded him of our meeting in the men’s room and repeated the words he’d said to me, his response was “I said that? Are you sure it was me you were speaking to? I never would have said anything like that.”
I’m not exactly sure why Dr. Novikoff hadn’t remembered the conversation we’d had less than three months before, but I think he was trying to protect his cover. He’d worked hard to cultivate his hard-edged, no-nonsense persona; I can’t imagine he would have been eager to have the people who worked with him begin to think that he’d turned soft. So he disavowed all knowledge of our talk.
As it turned out, I spent only a few months in Dublin. With the encouragement of Dr. Englard, before leaving for Ireland, I filled out another application to Einstein. On December 13, 1974, the day after I arrived home for Christmas vacation, I returned to the Bronx for an interview. On December 17, I received a letter in the mail from Einstein’s admissions committee. The letter began, “We are pleased to inform you… .” I started medical school in the Bronx in August 1975; I’ve been here ever since.
I’ve always been thankful to Dr. Novikoff for his words of encouragement in the men’s room on that afternoon in 1974 (even if he seemed not to remember them). And I’ve always been proud to be a member of the Einstein community, a place where even a blacklisted communist who had been barred from every other medical school in the country could find a home and flourish. It is my hope that the welcoming attitude that greeted Alex Novikoff in the 1950s will continue into the future.