A Life: Elmer R. Pfefferkorn, 1931-2019; ‘He was the real deal, very authentic’

  • Dartmouth Medical School professor Elmer Pfefferkorn teaches a class in Hanover, N.H., in 1988. Pfefferkorn taught microbiology and virology and conducted groundbreaking, grant-support research on parasites. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Elmer Pfefferkorn at home in his Hanover, N.H., library in 2008. Pfefferkorn collected rare books, including many first editions. (Jon Gilbert Fox photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, May 12, 2019

HANOVER — While Elmer Pfefferkorn was welcoming each member of the class of 1985 to Dartmouth Medical School in the late summer of 1981, Hanover native Suzanne Bird realized where she’d seen the gangly microbiologist years before.

“I thought, ‘Oh: That’s that kind of funny guy from tennis,’ ” Bird, now chief of psychiatric emergency services at Massachusetts General Hospital, recalled recently. “When I was growing up, I knew him from the summer program on the old courts at Dartmouth, before they built the new gym and the new pool. He always wore white T-shirts that looked kind of ragged, and long, white shorts. He loped around the court with those long legs, and played a lot at the net.

“And he had this sort of befuddled, professorial look.”

Along with generations of medical students and colleagues before and after her, Bird witnessed the professorial side during the 40-plus years that Pfefferkorn, a Rhodes Scholar, taught microbiology and virology and conducted groundbreaking, National Institutes of Health-supported research on parasites.

And since Pfefferkorn’s death on March 25, 2019, at 87, many of them have been remembering with affection the way the Wisconsin-born graduate of Harvard Medical School shared his knowledge — cultural and personal as well as medical and scientific — with equal parts authority and humor.

“When I took his virology class, he made things unbelievably clear,” said Joseph O’Donnell, a 1971 graduate of the medical school who serves as senior advising dean and director of community programs of what is now the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. “And he was great at telling stories that illustrated the principles he was teaching us. One of them was the example of the outbreak of hepatitis that hit the Holy Cross football team in 1969. The way he told the stories, you remembered them.

“I’m sure that just about any student from the 1970s could tell you his story about a parasitic worm coming out somebody’s nose at the Hanover Inn.”

Between his arrival in Hanover in 1967 and his 2009 retirement from the classroom, hastened by the onset of Parkinson’s disease, Pfefferkorn endeared himself to medical students who didn’t pick up on the principles and the information at first lecture — a diligence and consideration that five graduating classes rewarded with the school’s top teaching prize.

“He gauged when people were struggling, and offered help early on,” O’Donnell recalled. “If everybody wasn’t getting it, he’d re-teach it. He knew how to help people who were struggling.”

As a collector of rare books, including many first editions, Pfefferkorn helped Suzanne Bird, who’d graduated from Amherst College with a bachelor’s degree in English, adjust to the rigors of medical school by giving her vintage tomes he figured she’d enjoy. Among the ones he regularly left on her lab bench was Bleak House.

“While learning what to do in microbiology lab, where we gave each other vaccinations and looked at creepy-scary slides of parasites, it was very comforting to talk with a microbiology professor about Charles Dickens,” Bird said. “It wasn’t just about the class and the subject at hand. … What was important to him was who you were as a person, how your mind worked, what you brought to the table.”

Better than just about anyone on the faculty or in the medical school, Pfefferkorn — whose survivors include his wife and longtime laboratory collaborator, Lorraine Cassidy Pfefferkorn, and two sons, Karl Wilhelm Pfefferkorn and Erich August Pfefferkorn — knew what every new student brought to the medical school.

“He memorized the name of every single student for the first day of classes, so he could greet them all and make them feel welcome and recognized,” said Dana Grossman, who edited Dartmouth Medicine magazine between 1986 and 2011. “And he memorized the names of their parents before parents’ weekend. The information wasn’t just data to him. He used it with incredible warmth and meaning.”

And as soon as he joined the medical school’s admissions committee, Pfefferkorn perused applications with an eye toward diversifying the student body.

Particularly between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, O’Donnell recalled, “it was very intentional on the part of Elmer and (then-dean) Jim Strickler to get deserving women into DMS. He was very supportive of women and very, very supportive of minorities, including Native Americans.

“He picked some great people who became great leaders in the Indian Health Service.”

Pfefferkorn impressed his fellow professors and researchers at least as much as he did his students.

“It was an event, as a faculty member, to go to Elmer’s lectures, particularly in virology,” said microbiologist William Green, one of Pfefferkorn’s successors as department chairman and later a dean of the medical school. “He would combine these little stories with broad significance and applicability with the facts, in a way that commanded the students’ attention. The only bad news was that it was hard to measure up to him with the students. He was so iconic.

“At the same time, he was so savvy about people, about leadership, about how to get things done. And he never felt threatened by people like me, with their own visions for how to advance the field. … Academia can be a tough place, as far as clashing personalities and visions and ideas, but I never heard anyone say a single bad word, ever, about Elmer.”

Least of all from current medical-school dean Duane Compton, who came to Dartmouth in 1993 to teach and conduct research in biochemistry.

“He wasn’t hierarchical, regardless of your seniority or your accomplishments,” Compton recalled. “He would greet me, any time of day, with, ‘Good day, sir.’ It was very endearing. He was the real deal, very authentic. He was good at so much — whether it was teaching or his lab work or his knowledge of literature — yet he was humble about it.”

To this day, Bird wishes that her daughter, now in her third year at Geisel, could have experienced the Pfefferkorn way — off the court.

“There was nothing showy about him, nothing intrusive or arrogant or self-aggrandizing,” Bird said. “Any kind of knowledge that he had that he thought was of value, he always dispensed as wisdom to be shared.

“It was learning about life and death and art, and being a complete human being.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.