Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Beyond Your Imagination

As the school comes out of the dark and chill of winter -- not that that's happening all that quickly here in Buffalo -- and over the next couple of months, before we reach the crescendo of crunch time going into final exams, our students find themselves presented with a plethora of networking opportunities.  There are dinners and events hosted by student organizations to bring current students and alumni together.  There are panel discussions featuring practitioners in different fields.  There are alumni and alumni groups inviting the students to come meet potential mentors or even employers.

I believe that networking is not just good for career advancement.  It can also enhance one's academic experience.  At any given event, a student might meet someone who inspires them, someone who can help them grasp a particular subject, or someone who helps them envision a path through school and beyond that might otherwise have eluded them.  And I frequently tell my students, "The law is a social profession."  So I encourage all my students -- and especially my 1L students -- to participate in these events, even if they don't see what they might get out of it.  Sometimes what grows out of a new acquaintance is entirely unpredictable.  And if students are still a little dubious or hesitant, I have a story to tell them.

In the 1920s and ’30s, Arthur Murray became the most famous dance instructor in history, first through his mail-order business –- he invented a system of teaching dance by means of footprint diagrams, an idea that was sparked by a conversation he had had with perennial populist presidential candidate and anti-evolutionist Scopes Monkey Trial counsel William Jennings Bryan, of all people –- and then through the “Arthur Murray Dance Studio”, a chain that still exists today. Through the 1950s, Murray and his wife hosted a TV show, The Arthur Murray Party, which consisted in part of dance competitions between celebrity guests.

One such competition pitted the smoldering Latin actor Ricardo Montalban against the well-known ventriloquist Paul Winchell. Montalban was a star in his native Mexico and had had some success in Hollywood, though nothing like the fame he would achieve some two decades later as Captain Kirk's enemy Khan Noonian Singh in the Star Trek franchise and the mysterious Mr. Rourke on the series Fantasy Island.

Winchell, like Edgar Bergen, had inexplicably found national renown as a ventriloquist on a radio show, and later hosted TV series with his dummies Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff. From the 1960s onward, Winchell would be better known for his voiceover work: he gave life to chronic Smurf-hater Gargamel, to the leader of the Scrubbing Bubbles, and, most memorably, to Winnie-the-Pooh's elastically hyperactive friend Tigger. Perhaps his latent inner Tigger gave him an edge in the dance competition, because he defeated Montalban and took home the Buick (which sounds like a euphemism, but the car really was the grand prize).

Talented as he was as a performer, Winchell’s earliest career ambition was to become a doctor; but, when he was a youth, his family could not afford medical school. He retained a lifelong interest in medicine, though, even earning a degree and working in acupuncture in the 1970s. It was therefore quite natural that Winchell should form a connection with Arthur Murray’s son-in-law, a man named Dr. Henry Heimlich, when they met during the taping of the Winchell/Montalban dance-off. Around the time Winchell was going to acupuncture school, Heimlich would be lauded by some (including himself) as the most well-known physician in America, after his article in Emergency Medicine introduced the life-saving technique he termed “the Heimlich maneuver”. But in the 1950s, he was a more-or-less ordinary practicing surgeon, and Winchell was delighted to make his acquaintance.

Over the next several years, Winchell and Heimlich stayed in touch, and Heimlich even invited Winchell to join him several times in the operating room as an observer. It was during one of these operations that Winchell came up with an idea for a functional, implantable mechanical heart, one that could theoretically be used to replace a diseased human heart. He drew up the plans, consulting with Heimlich on the medical details, and in 1956 applied for a patent on the device he had invented. By 1963 he had been granted the first patent in the United States on a fully implantable artificial heart. Eventually, Winchell would contribute this patent to the University of Utah for use in its artificial organ design program — the same program from which Dr. Robert Jarvik produced the first successfully implanted artificial heart. That device, the Jarvik-7, formed the basis of the Syncardia temporary Total Artificial Heart, which has been used in more than 800 patients.

So. Tigger faced the wrath of Khan on the dance floor and, as a result, met The Most Famous Doctor in America, who helped him invent and patent the world’s first bionic heart, contributing at least in a small way, to saving the lives of 800+ people.

Could Winchell have predicted this when he agreed to participate in The Arthur Murray Party, or when he made the acquaintance of strangers like Heimlich backstage?  Of course not.  Nor can our students predict who they will meet, and what they may take away from those meetings, when they put themselves out there among alumni, practitioners, judges, and clients.  And that's the beauty of being open to such experiences.  You literally cannot imagine all the good things that may come of them.


Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Meetings, Professionalism | Permalink


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