Dr. Edmund Pellegrino as Stony Brook University’s vice president of health sciences created Stony Brook University Hospital and what is now Stony Brook Medicine. It and Northwell Health under Michael Dowling have become giant healthcare networks in Suffolk County.

Dowling who grew up in Ireland under difficult family circumstances — his parents were disabled — came to the U.S., studied at Fordham University, became a professor and dean at Fordham, and served as New York State’s director of Health, Education and Human Services and commissioner of its Department of Social Services.

Serving as chief executive officer of Northwell Health since 1997, he has led its expansion to include 21 hospitals and being the largest health care provider in the state.

Likewise, Dr. Pellegrino’s story is unusual.

Raised in Brooklyn, the son of Italian immigrants, Ivy League medical schools weren’t interested in him despite his superb academic record at St. John’s University — because of his Italian background.

As a reporter for the daily Long Island Press, I got to know Dr. Pellegrino after he was appointed in 1966 vice president of the yet-to-be-built Stony Brook University Health Sciences Center and dean of its proposed school of medicine. I wrote about Dr. Pellegrino’s life then, and also in later years in this column. It has been related, too, in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics in a series online titled “Illuminating the Art of Medicine.”

Dr. Pellegrino was a founder of the field of bioethics. He chaired the U.S. President’s Council on Bioethics. He authored or co-authored 23 books. And after his years at Stony Brook, he became president of The Catholic University of America.

“Ironically, this elder statesman of the medical profession was almost not admitted to medical school,” recounts the “Illuminating the Art of Medicine” piece. “Despite his outstanding grades at St. John’s University, where he graduated summa cum laude, he was not invited for interviews at any of the schools to which he applied. A letter from one Ivy League school complimented young Pellegrino on his grades but declined his application stating that he would be ‘happier with his own kind.’Italians, said his academic advisor, were no more welcome than Jews in the major medical schools, and he might fare better if he changed his name. Pellegrino refused.

“His admission to New York University Medical School was due in part to his father’s ingenuity,” the piece continues. “A salesman in wholesale foods in New York, the senior Pellegrino approached one of his customers who owned a restaurant near the campus of NYU and asked to be introduced to one of the regular customers. That customer — the dean of NYU Medical School — asked Mr. Pellegrino to send along his son’s grade report. The junior Pellegrino was none the wiser and the rest, as they say, is history.”

In the early 1960s, New York State wanted a school of medicine and a hospital at Stony Brook University. But Stony Brook’s top administrators were nuclear physicists unfamiliar with medical education or care. 

A search committee chose Dr. Pellegrino — and this area got a medical visionary.  

In my interviews with him back then, Dr. Pellegrino spoke of medicine being a moral enterprise with a doctor having a “covenant” with his or her patient. He was dissatisfied with the direction medicine was taking, turning health care into a commodity, a business, he said. He made plans to have the medical school and dental, nursing, social welfare schools take a “virtue-based” approach emphasizing interdisciplinary studies. He sought to have the hospital be nurturant, exceptionally caring. 

He passed away in 2013 at 92, teaching at Georgetown University up to the week he died. He attended mass every morning. His obituary in National Catholic Reporter quoted him saying his faith was the single most “important element in my whole life.”

Recently, Dr. Robert Iovino, a Southampton-based oral surgeon and clinical professor at the School of Dental Medicine at Stony Brook — and also an admirer of Dr. Pellegrino — provided me with a book of essays by him on “The Philosophical Foundation of Medicine.”

In it, Dr. Pellegrino details his plans for “the unique chance to create something new in each of the health professions” at Stony Brook. Its “new Health Sciences Center,” he says, will be “dedicated to a fresh approach to teaching, research and service.” He wrote: “Simple exposure to courses in the humanities is not in itself a sufficient condition for producing ‘compassionate’ or socially responsive physicians or students. Nonetheless the possibilities of achieving these ends through inculcation of the attitudes of mind fostered by certain of the humanities is much in need.”

Today what had been Southampton Hospital and Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport are part of the Stony Brook network. Stony Brook University Hospital was recognized this year by Becker’s Hospital Review on its list of “Great Hospitals in America.” Some 87 Stony Brook Medicine doctors were placed on the Castle Connolly “Top Doctors” list. Stony Brook Medicine includes a Heart Institute, Dental Care Center, Cancer Center, Trauma Center, Long Island State Veterans Home, Neurosciences Institute, Children’s Hospital and 200 community-based “healthcare settings” throughout Suffolk County.

Dr. Pellegrino’s vision lives on.


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