Dr. Ben

My wife and I have just returned from a 3-day Christmas party, held in the rustic Cowboy Creek Lodge in Onstead, on the edge of the Irish Hills (1).  Present were the spawn of my late birth father Dick Spei, who taught his kids to approach every meal as if it were their last.  There’s a picture and paragraph about them here (2). We’re out to great-grandchildren now and the crowd totaled about 40.  The family does this to avoid all the conflicts of Christmas season that might provide excuses not to attend.  The food is terrific, of course, driven by a bit of competition, and there are still presents, delivered mainly by sister Suzanne’s chimney (3).

They’re a varied bunch, with a couple of truck drivers, a retired telecommunications mogul couple, a nutraceutical entrepreneur, an artist/sculptor, an entertainment lawyer, some tech guys, and us.  There’s zero boasting or self-promotion, although all are welcome to specific queries that impinge on their areas.

This year, we welcomed a new doctor to our fold.  Ben, youngest son of my oldest brother Nick (by 10 months, Dick wasted no time), successfully defended his PhD thesis in Environmental Science at the University of Idaho last August, marrying his chef-girlfriend Liz shortly thereafter.  He took a post-doc at the same institution and is very happy.  He’d worked his way through Wayne State tending bar in Ferndale, and really enjoyed the teaching that came with his master’s program.

Nick fathered some great young men.  Jake followed in his dad’s footsteps, operates his own truck with time left for a complex garden and science fiction.  Alex became a helicopter mechanic in the military, returning after some civilian time to provide them with some pretty intricate services related to helicopters.  I’m sorry I couldn’t find a pic of the three together.  But I do have one of Ben, showing he got his share of his bon vivant grandad’s character:

Good lookin’ guy, eh? Family resemblence?

As Kathy and I sat with him and Liz to discuss his situation, he spoke of his respect and admiration for late University of Michigan botanist Burton Barnes, including how he was seeking to model his career along similar lines.  I vowed that once we got home, I’d look up the guy and see what he was all about.  One thing Ben was inspired to do was dig into some old stuff that he could apply to what he was doing now.  This resonated with me, as I used to do a lot of the same thing.  So, once I was done reading (4), I wrote Ben an e-mail.

Sure was great to see you, Dr. Spei, and your charming bride Liz.  I’ve been reading about this Professor Burton, the Michigan man you said you admired and wished to emulate.  You are surely on the right track, grasshopper.  I’ve just read through the attached and am both impressed and moved.  Too damned bad I never got to meet the guy.  Even if he hadn’t been a very accomplished botanist, he’d have had me for playing trombone under William D. Revelli!  I love his overarching philosophy, believing “that biota cannot live on their own but are conferred life from the Earth, such that Earth itself is Life. In terms of his research, this meant that ecological science should focus on the study of whole, volumetric, air-biota-land systems (ecosystems) rather than simply the species they contain.”  This reminded me so much of the concept in medicine we call the “whole patient”, in that a sick person is more than a collection of ailing organ systems and that docs overlook those interactions at their (and the patient’s) peril.  With reductionism fueled by advances in molecular biology that make no understanding respected unless it’s down to the atomic level, those taking the broader view can come up short on the respect front.  I suspect botany saw, and is still seeing, the same thing.  For all the accolades they garner, such discoveries are ultimately unsatisfying unless you can see how it all fits together.

And knowing some old things can help you advance in academia. Since most strivers don’t know much more than the last 5 years of the literature, wisdom from decades past can seem like a fresh revelation.  Of course, you just acknowledge the original source, but it will be from your lips everyone heard it.  I always enjoyed digging up old references that pertained to thorny clinical situations I was facing, then bringing those up in discussions of the patient in question.  It helped that two of my mentors – Bill Castor and Giles Bole – were already old guys with great memories when I first got there, and they showed me the way.

So, I must lean on others to sum up.

First, there’s ol’ George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 

To which I must add my corollary: “Those who don’t remember the past must hear about it from those who do.”

And on a lighter note, from Peter Allen’s “All That Jazz”(’74) (5).

And for all Professor Burton accomplished over his career, he only had 97 publications.  That might not even make fool professor in my department!

But keep writing!

Uncle Bob


1. Pure Michigan.  Cowboy Creek Lodge at Stagecoach Stop Western Resort.  Pure Michigan.  Cowboy Creek Lodge at Stagecoach Stop Western Resort.  https://www.michigan.org/property/cowboy-creek-lodge-stagecoach-stop-western-resort

2. Ike B. Fam.  WordPress 1/29/21. https://theviewfromharbal.com/2021/01/29/fam/

3. Ike B.  Chimney!  WordPress 3/8/22.  https://theviewfromharbal.com/2022/03/08/chimney/

4. Kashian DM.  Burton V. Barnes (1930-2014).  The Michigan Botanist (2015) 54:2-19.  file:///Users/bob/Downloads/burton-v-barnes-19302014%20(7).pdf

5. MOR Music Clips.  Peter Allen “Everything Old is New Again” with Rocketts.  YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PkYtZ6fV2CU

Published by rike52

I retired from the Rheumatology division of Michigan Medicine end of June '19 after 36 years there. Upon hitting Ann Arbor for the second time (I went to school here) it took me almost 8 months to meet Kathy, 17 months to buy her a house (on Harbal, where we still live), and 37 months to marry her. Kids never came, but we've been blessed with a crowd of colleagues, friends, neighbors and family that continues to grow. Lots of them are going to show up in this log eventually. Stay tuned.

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