McWilliams Tennant STennant McWilliams, PhD, is retired dean of the UAB School of Social and Behavioral Sciences. His other UAB positions were Chairman, Department of History; Director, Center for Urban Affairs; and Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs. He has been Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Alabama High Education Partnership. He has traveled to several countries as a consultant and has written several volumes including New Lights in the Valley, The Emergence of UAB (2007); Hannis Taylor: New Southerner as American (1978), The New South Faces the World (1988); New Lights in the Valley: The Emergence of UAB (2007), and The Chaplain’s Conflict: Good and Evil in a War Hospital (2012). He received the PhD degree in history from the University of Georgia.

DrJamesPittman PatchThere’s no more revered sentence in American literature than William Faulkner’s final utterance in The Sound and the Fury. In telling of what happened to lead character Dilsey Gibson, he uses a single subject and a single verb; “She endured.” Tweak the pronoun and the verb tense and that pretty well sums up the way I feel about my first encounter with Jim Pittman: “It endures.”

It was in the early 1980s. I was chairing UAB’s History Department; Jim was about six years into deaning up the street in medical school. Like many of us at UAB of that time, I was entranced with Joe Volker’s strategy – where possible, develop doctoral programs drawing on talents and resources cutting across departmental, indeed school, lines. Pragmatically, this had huge financial advantages; it made maximum use of scarce resources. It also spoke to the power of multidisciplinary thought, returning “knowledge” to some of its original whole after a century or more of “post-holing.” Even more, it anticipated the evolving agenda of the NIH and other funding sources.

So I went a-calling on Jim. I wanted his significant help in developing a campus-wide doctorate in medical history, both a Ph.D. and a joint MD/Ph.D. UAB had far-ranging talents in this field, and I had an open, fully funded faculty line ready to be committed to the endeavor.

First, I tried to schmooze him by talking about all my friends who had gone where he went for undergraduate education, Davidson College. I even trotted out my Dean Rusk card: Immediately after leaving the U.S. Secretary of State job, Rusk landed at the University of Georgia, and this famous graduate of Davidson College critiqued my dissertation. Jim nodded.

Next, I tried mightily to tap into that potent Harvard bridge: Jim went there to medical school, my father went there for graduate school in English, my uncle in history. Harvard folks love to talk “Harvard” – understandably. I waxed eloquent about Perkins Hall, having once strolled by it on a research trip. I told of getting a haircut in the same Harvard Square barbershop where John Kennedy had his cut. In fact, Kennedy’s barber cut my hair. Jim nodded.

Our abiding bonds in Davidson and Harvard well established, I then transitioned into business. I laid out a carefully developed proposal for faculty, graduate fellowships, operating budget, shared expenses, targets and metrics for measuring success – the standard stuff for a doctoral-program proposal. As I talked,s he said nothing. Nary an interruption. But when I stopped he stared right at me and uttered in a flat tone, “You want some of my money.” Before I could respond he said it again, just as flatly. “You want some of my money.”

Was this a question? A statement? A warning? An encouragement? A challenge? What was this?

 A95 01 0018 Pittman JANow, Jim was not shy about spending money. He even had private stationary printed up for himself as dean of medicine. It supported a specially engraved crest – all slathered in ecclesiastical Latin as if her were Henry VIII before setting eyes on Anne Boleyn. I had seen stationary in someone else’s office. I figured anybody with Henry VIII stationary needed a top spot on my approach list. So with a certain amount of confidence I replied: “Yes, I want some of your money, and some of your faculty talent, too. How else can we build this thing?”

Ten minutes later I departed his office – with nothing, not even a suggestion we follow up. I wasn’t going to get any of “Jim’s money.” Back to square one. And it was one tough square, considering there just was not going to be a doctoral program in medical history, much less a MD/Ph.D. in medical history, without big-time medical school involvement.

Four weeks later, roughly 4 pm, I was in my office at the other end of the campus. A staff assistant knocked on the door, “Dr. Pittman is here.” I was deep into budget and faculty workload. Really irritated, I asked her if Dr. Pittman had an appointment. She whispered, “No. He’s not on the book.” I remember thinking: “What is this sucker doing just walking in on me like this? When I met with him I respected standard protocol – getting an appointment, etc., with his secretary. Who does he think he is, Henry VIII?” Before that thought ended, however, there he was in front of me. He didn’t even say, “Good afternoon,” or “I thought we might continue the conversation we had.” Just standing there in front of my desk he loudly asked: “What really is medical history?”

I went over the whole thing as it was understood at that time. “Internal,” old-style medical history focused on great contributions by great doctors. “External” medical history probed broad social implications of medicine and how “medicine” evolved, for good and for bad, as a profession. At the end of this 10-minute dissertation – I sat, he stood – he sat down with a sigh.

“What about music?” he humbly queried.

“What about music?” came out of left field. But I kept my composure, and off he went. We talked about “new” uses of symphonic sounds in behavioral therapies and how those in turn might have implications for physiological issues – implications for the brain brought about through “behavior.” Today that’s a pretty standard line of thought, if still a huge frontier. Back then it wasn’t. We didn’t use the words “behavioral medicine” or “social medicine,” but that was our direction. He seemed eager, fascinated but also reticent … almost nervous in his general body language, no longer a blustery Henry VIII.

Then, just as abruptly as he had brought up music, he shifted to Tinsley Harrison. I remember thinking something like: “Ah, the great man approach. Most relevant so long as placed into broader social context.” The Harrison lecture seemingly went on forever; it was probably 15 minutes. Finally, I interrupted him. After all this time I certainly can’t quote myself but I probably said something to this effect: “I thought we were talking history. That means understanding change over time – the central point of history.” With that, even more abruptly, he shifted back – “modern medicine” and music. We talked about therapeutic uses of music in the popular cultures of historic Africa and how modern western medicine was just now understanding the health-science behind it. He quoted journal articles. He roamed widely though anthropology, public health, brain physiology, history. It was stunning. Somehow or another he wrapped up on how birds fly and the connections between bird aviation and modern aviation … something about bird brains and computers, not just wing structures.

It’s an understatement that on that day, no deal got done. A compelling set of discussions? For sure. My first lesson in an almost two-decade seminar on the virtues of Tinsley Harrison. You bet. But when I tried repeatedly to ease talk over to my project, no dice. And the same for some four more months of talk in his office and mine and lunches in the hospital cafeteria and one in a Mexican place near the University. He drove me crazy. “Jim, are you in our out on the doctoral proposal? Tell me! What is it that you want to understand more fully? What are your reservations?” He wouldn’t say.

But I don’t think he was using me. Far from it. Well before that four-month period concluded, I think I figured him out. He lived in two worlds. One was the “clinic” or “silo” world of medicine accentuated by the agonizing, if absolutely necessary, Great Money Fight leading to creation of the University of Alabama Health Services Foundation. The other was the “university” world – truly, “university” correlating with “all,” ideas with no limits, multi-disciplinary to interdisciplinary and beyond. Drawn mightily by both, he worked though it all the best he could. And in the process drove me and any number of other arts-and-sciences people stark-raving mad. He just had to talk – about everything.

 A95 03P 0719 PittmanUltimately, I proceeded on my own as far as medical history went. I tried another tactic. I hired a firs-class medical historian fresh out of Johns Hopkins. Despite his presence – lunch meetings, Jim guest-lecturing in his classes – I still got nowhere with Jim on the doctoral program. Granted, glimmers of hope occasionally peeked though. He called it the Center for Applied Medical Studies (CAMS). It had a fine dining room. On special invitation I went with several other historians to a lunch-lecture by the Penn medical historian (and Birmingham native), Russ Maulitz. Russ and I went to high school together at Indian Springs. I was thrilled with the prospect of seeing him again.

Jim met us at the door. I chided him gently about having Old South Doric columns smack dab in the center of a futuristic medical center. Playfully, he chided back. A long time before any Old South planter raised a Doric column, the Greeks and Romans lived beneath them. And it was from those same ancient Doric places across the sea that Hippocrates derived. That exchange, plus Jim’s enthusiasm about Russ’s elegant if “morbid” comments on nineteenth-century pathology, left me thinking, well, maybe … just maybe … we are turning a corner.

But no program. Our medical historian moved on. Last time I checked he was a senior figure at the National Library of Medicine in Washington, D.C. We asked another to visit, a distinguished author of a book about slavery In the American South and medicine. He wasn’t going to move if we didn’t have a program. And then one day, Hughes Evans walked into my office. She was still a history all-but-dissertation student at Harvard as well as an advanced medical student there, too. Claude Bennett was hiring this woman in the Department of Medicine – this woman in blue jeans, t-shirt and flip flops. We talked about her dissertation on children and healthcare in early Boston. Instantly I knew I was in the presence of one brilliant, motivated, and kind person. We developed a joint appointment. But once again the programmatic starts – the money, more than anything – just refused alignment. Ultimately Mike Flannery arrived to run what is now the Reynolds-Finley Library. Here was a fine scholar and teacher in a field vital for the institution. Those programmatic stars remained elusive.

Still, neither Jim nor I forgot about the medical-history project. This is to say we never forgot that we became good friends and university colleagues in the process of not joining forces on that project. And this leads me to another Pittman story.

A decade later, Scotty McCallum had succeeded Dick Hill in the presidency and asked me to serve a stint as interim vice president for academic affairs. In that job, I wanted to move forward on an early-admissions to medical school program, which had for a good been at incubation stage. Vice President for Student Affairs Jenny Gauld, along with my vice-president predecessor, Jim Woodward, and Undergraduate Honors Program director Ada Long, had studied models from across the nation. Though not without detractors, such as programs were “the thing to do” at some of the finest universities with medical schools. Jim Pittman had agreed to participate in planning, though he wasn’t wholly sold on it.

Our hurdle on implantation was Jim’s lack of full endorsement. This sprang from something by now familiar to me: The program would grant medical school admission to extremely smart high school graduates, who would receive non-binding admission to UAB medical school at the same time they began their undergraduate studies at UAB. We’re talking high level people: folks who would turn down significant scholarships to Duke or Harvard or Berkley to come to UAB. Most would have an interdisciplinary undergraduate experience in Ada’s honors program, with professors from throughout the institution. One thematic course on the history of science might be taught by, say, a physicist, a historian, a hematologist, a philosopher, a literary theorist, and a cystic fibrosis expert.

The first week in my new job, in July 1990, Jim telephoned. “We need to talk.” We did in my office. He told me point-blank that he didn’t like the idea. We should hold up on implementation. He was scared the entering undergraduates would get caught up in a broad liberal arts education and not focus on the pre-med hard science as much as they should in order to be ready for medical school. I replied, yes, indeed, that was my hope – that they would go deeply into the worlds of philosophy, history, poetry, art, all in addition to standard biology and chemistry courses of pre-medical curricula. I put it right to him.

First, any number of national studies about medical education then were calling for increased educational breath at both undergraduate and graduate levels. Second, “Look, don’t you credit your own strong liberal arts education at Davidson with some of our successes as a physician and researcher?” Third, hadn’t he recently telephoned me wanting to know more about one of Ada’s seminars – “Witchcraft to Spacecraft”? Had this interdisciplinary study of myth in science not intrigued him so much that he wanted the reading list for himself? Had he not read much of the stuff on the list? Indeed, had he not instantly grasped one of the key lines of inquiry in the seminar, the way the human ego can both advance and retard scientific advancements? And had he not sent me a copy of an article about the liberal arts and medical education that Birmingham’s noted private-practice urologist, Jeffery Cohn, had published? Not that it was relevant that Jeff was my dear friend, but wasn’t Dick Hill trying everything in the world to recruit Jeff to be a member of the UAB urology faculty? The truth was, did he really not engage “the plan” more than he was willing to admit?

At the time I had no idea how strong a positon I had with him pushing the “liberal arts” idea. But recently, with the extraordinary help of Elsa Strauss in Alumni Affairs at Davidson College. I reconstructed some of Jim’s undergraduate life. Without violating privacy standards, we turned up quite a profile.

Between 1944 and 1948, young Jim Pittman, out of Orlando, Fla., embraced just about everything this esteemed liberal arts college had to offer. Of course he was a Phi Beta Kappa. Of course he held memberships in honor societies focused on biology and chemistry. But he also sang in the chorus, tutored in English composition and comparative literature, and served as president of the German language honor society. His senior year, he also headed up a poetry and literature society and served as managing editor of one of the finest college newspapers in America, The Davidsonian. It went on and on: Student Government Association vice president, YMCA Cabinet, member of honor code committee, the Sentell Award for depth of character. Plus he was a member of the oldest Greek social fraternity in the nation, Beta Theta Pi. Perhaps, most important, however, he graduated from Davidson. This means he fulfilled all the rigorous standards which that institution then, and now, requires to ensure intellectual breadth in a college education. In short, Jim Pittman was anything but a narrowly focused young dude gloating over the slide rule on his belt. He was anything but part of the group slipping into the chemistry lab on Saturday nights to gaze adoringly at valences on the Periodic Chart.

Now, I emphasize, in the early 1990s I didn’t know all this. I just knew him as my colleague who went to Davidson and Harvard, my colleague who loved to talk about everything a university offers, and my colleague who growled at even the slightest mention of his budget.

Long story short, the University needed his full endorsement of this project and a relatively tiny allocation of “his” money. And while I enjoyed his praise of Tinsley Harrison and airplane stories, here was a deal UAB needed me to close ... expeditiously. Perhaps he thought we would just talk airplanes when he suggested I come to his home in Mountain Brook to pursue “our mutual interests.” I had declined two invitations to go up in his bi-plane. Perhaps that’s what this was about. Unquestionably, however, I had my own agenda for that Saturday afternoon.

I struggled to get my car safely inside that tiny driveway off Ridge Road. Connie welcomed me. Kind Connie – among the most caring of all the world’s caregivers. She allowed as how he was waiting for me in the attic.

In the attic? Yes, in the attic. He was “reorganizing.”

When I finally worked my way back in there, I saw something I will love forever. I saw James A. Pittman, Jr., in dirty khaki pants and a white undershirt. No shoes, no socks.

I know. When you remember Jim, you see the image he wanted of himself in the medical world: white coat, bow tie, supremely doctor-ish, strolling authoritatively down a hospital hall. But that’s only a piece of the man. Much of him, I urge, indeed more of him than people knew, was “Jim the Attic Man.”

There in the attic he was oblivious to the dust and rusty nails as he was to the Health Services Foundation. He was so unguarded. And so happy. 

He was sorting old issues of magazines. I vaguely recall National Geographic and Smithsonian. For sure, it was magazines with a host of photographs. He sorted not by the title of magazine, nor by date of issue. He sorted – or tried to sort – by level of interest he had in feature stories. Here were his friends, his microscopes telling of distant realities, his memories from childhood. I remember the futility of the exercise; everything enthralled him. And this defined prioritizing. Instantly, we were marveling over polar bears, pythons, Mars, a piece of pottery dug up near Jamestown, Va., the diagram of a particular carbon compound. Then we got to ducks. For each photograph, he had a “reasonable facsimile thereof” mounted in that attic! He personally had taxidermied them as a kid. That was how he got fascinated with vital organs – ducks to humans, a leap back to frogs, then on up the evolutionary chain to humans and indeed their thyroid glands. In retrospect, his narrative in this regard bears such similarity to E.O. Wilson’s, with his youthful ramblings along the coasts of northwest Florida and Alabama.

I have to say it again: he was so happy and so unguarded. And this led me to one manipulative moment.

This was going to be “my day.” I was going to leave that attic not just with Early Admission to Medical School in one hip pocket, but a commitment on a doctorate in medical history in the other. “Oh, my God, Jim, those mallards! They are just spectacular! Can you tell me how you did them? Yes! Oh, yes!”

He purred. Sweet victory was in reach. “Look at that deep green in his neck! Amazing, Jim, just amazing.”

After some thirty minutes of ecstatic mallard talk I told Jim we had a little business needing our attention. He really should cease dissenting on the Early Admission to Medical School Program. These high-end UAB students should have the same rigorous liberal arts education he got at Davidson, or better. Truly I figured this was my time. It was all or nothing. And I sensed “all.”

But it turned out “nothing.” Jim fidgeted around with some magazines and hemmed and hawed about something and escaped. After all these years I can’t quote him. But I can tell you he spoke in a soft firm voice and his words went something like this: “Tennant, I just can’t see it. They need to focus on the basic, proven pre-med curriculum. If you let them in the Honors Program, their undergraduate experience won’t have the focus we need them to have as they enter medical school.” In other words, he was pledging support for implantation so long as the students stayed out of the Honors Program and focused intensely on biology and chemistry.

I couldn’t agree. If I had folded like that, Ada and Jenny would have killed me – and rightfully so. I wandered on out of the house. Certainly, no discussion ensued about the medical history doctorate.

Monday morning, I called Scotty about 5:30. I always tried to give him at least an hour at his desk before hitting him with something. He knew of the struggle. He said to sit tight. If I can’t tell you of the “process” I can tell you happily of the “result.” By Wednesday of that week, James A. Pittman, Jr., MD, Dean of Medicine, pledged his full support to the Early Admission to Medical School Program, with the Honors Program deeply involved. We were full speed ahead. And Jim never wavered.

Actually he did more than never waver. Not too long ago, Ada reminded me that Jim Pittman – taxidermist, art historian, specialist on Chinese philosophies, and, yes, endocrinologist – taught some of his best sessions in the undergraduate Honors Program. She recalled his lectures on iodine to be “stunning – moving across many bodies of knowledge to show the relevance of jut one striking medical discovery.” I sat in on one of these. He was amazing. I wished the students could have seen him in stained khakis and shoeless instead of the white-coated and bow-tied dean. But it was a fair compromise, all in all. The students felt him. Indeed the students saw the man in the white coat uncontrollably reaching far into his Renaissance-style knowledge to propound and to query. His sparkling eyes carefully moved around the room. They focused on each one of those students, individually – the sign of the master teacher. Maybe it was unknowingly. Maybe not. But he transmitted a visceral excitement about the liberal arts and medical history, and of their many useful truths for the physician.

I was living in France when Wayne Finley emailed me of Jim’s death. Now that was one riveting email. Tim Pennycuff, director of UAB Archives, had been extremely attentive to Jim and kept me apprised generally of his health. But I just could not envision Jim “deceased.” For me he was the essence of being alive. He had a harder time living among several intellectual traditions than some do. But that undoubtedly resulted from his passions about life: not just his competing passions within university life but from his passions regarding everything in life that can be thought about.

And hopefully on that exalted note I can find a way of reigning in this remembrance – bringing her to a halt.

True to the Pittman experience – not to be confused with Tasmanian – I would like to conclude by proclaiming the profound significance of … chow-chow. For the uninitiated, chow-chow is a condiment normally found in Southern cuisine. It has deep cultural roots in the history of slavery in the American South and from there, of course, far back into the history of Africa. It’s essentially fine-chopped cabbage thoroughly marinated in a hot pepper sauce with some tiny pieces of tomato and onion and perhaps bell pepper pitched in. Ideally, you eat chow-chow as a side dish with black-eyed peas, turnip greens, sliced tomatoes, and cornbread. Tasty? That’s understating the matter. The truest of chow-chow fans accompany it with a glass of old-style buttermilk.

How does this pertain to Jim? For my last visit with Jim, in 2011, he got us together to tell me about progress on his biography of Tinsley Harrison. He asked me to meet him for lunch in Crestline Village, less than a five minute drive from his home. Deeply involved in finishing a book manuscript, I was scared he was going to ask me to read his manuscript and give feedback. I knew he had amazing collections of materials. Yet I suspected disorder – a lot of it. To me that was like asking Dean Rusk to re-invade Vietnam. Plus, as I said, I was swamped. But I remember approaching the table thinking, “Well, if he asks me, I am going to do it. We’ve been through too much together, not just surviving but prospering.” As I sat down I saw the big envelope resting on the table. I primed myself for sucking it up and saying, “Yes.”

Yet I never found out if that was what the envelope held. He ordered for both of us. It was your standard southern vegetable plate … with chow-chow. And for 50 minutes – I kid you not – he lectured – passionately lectured me on the origins, implications, benefits and indeed glories of chow-chow. Every few minutes he would pause, take a breath and ask, “Do you understand?” “Yes, Jim,” I would say with overt moral certitude. “Yes, I really understand. I promise I do.” The envelope stayed between us. Never opened, not even referenced. That day, whether planned or not, it was all about the profound universalities of chow-chow.

There’s a fine chow-chow lady in Watson’s Crossings, in Wilcox, Ala,, right down the road from our family place at Oak Hill. I am thinking about proposing her for participation in a UAB incubator-small business-development program. I’ll invest heavily in it. And when she goes public I’ll have millions in stock revenue. And I’ll earmark all this money for creating a doctorate in medical history at UAB.

We won’t launch this rocket until it’s fully fueled. Big bucks. All students will be completely funded. It will have its own building, Doric columns no less. Its stately dining room will serve one meal – lunch, Monday through Thursday. This will be a free lunch for all faculty, staff, and students affiliated with the program. Friday lunch, however, will be reserved for an inner circle. I am yet to get this figured out but I know the inner circle will be self-sustaining. You get voted in. or maybe you just get voted out. Stay tuned.

At any rate, given that all faculty and students in the program will be exceptionally strong, you will be admitted to the inner circle not on the basis of GRE or MCAT scores, grade point averages, where you went to “college,” how many articles you have published, or how many grants showing on your resume. Even a Pulitzer doesn’t get you in. Two far more crucial criteria will be required for admission: First, you are not boring, second, you have a passion for the chow-chow placed on the table on Fridays. Now, most will urge this inner group be named “the Chow-Chow Scholars.” For sure that has a nice international ring. But I’m sorry. I’m funding this thing and I’ll do the naming. I am going with “Pittman Scholars.” I like the irony of that and even more the affection.

About Dr. Pittman

 A93 04 0599 Pittman

Born: April 12, 1927, Orlando, Fla.

B.S., Davidson College: 1948

M.D., Harvard Medical School: 1952

Internship, Massachusetts General Hospital: 1952-54

Clinical Associate, National Institutes of Health: 1954-56

Married Constance Shen, MD: February 19, 1955

Internal Medicine Resident, UAB, 1956; Chief Resident, 1957-58

Joined UAB faculty: 1959

Director, UAB Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism: 1962-71

Dean of Medicine: 1973-92

Died January 12, 2014, Birmingham, Ala.