My forthcoming memoir, One Legged-Mongoose: Secrets, Legacies and Coming of Age in 1950s New York, recounts the years I was 10 to 12 years old, narrated by the boy. My father was an immigrant who came to the U.S. from Ukraine at age 15, impoverished and orphaned.
He went to work and, in his twenties, opened a textile store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where I worked on and off until I completed medical school. The Lower East Side then — and now — is a starting point for many immigrants. In the ’50s there were some 400 textile businesses, almost all owned by Jewish immigrants.
I came to know scores of shopkeepers. Many of our customers were immigrants as well. That generation worked tirelessly, and their aspiration was for their children, born here, to be well-educated. In the ’50s, the ultimate wish was for their sons to become physicians.
My younger brother, Stephen, and I understood this — even if it was never said directly. A doctor was respected, and for Jews at the time, becoming a highly regarded physician meant that the statesmen and Rockefellers of the world would come to you for help.
Maimonides, after all, in the 13th century, was chief physician to Saladin, the leader of the Muslim world.
Stephen and I obliged, each of us choosing internal medicine training. He went on to be an infectious diseases specialist, and I went into oncology. Both of us began our medical careers as bench scientists, and Stephen eventually published some 400 research papers.
But I was never satisfied just doing medicine. As a 10-year-old, I was already a savvy baseball card collector. In med school, I began to buy contemporary art. The challenge was to find works of art that we loved at starter prices.
In developing expertise in art, there is no primer, no right answer. We speak about taste, connoisseurship, and an “eye.” There is nothing scientific at all about choosing art. I am convinced that carefully looking at enormous amounts of art improves our eye, but there is no formula.
Some of the first purchases by my wife, Livia, and I were by the artists who would later become famous (Kenneth Noland, Ellsworth Kelly), and their work valuable. Part of my success was perhaps luck, but I also came to the process with an advantage: growing up with my father. As I highlight in my book, throughout childhood I accompanied my dad as he visited manufacturers to buy for the upcoming season, and he had to make esthetic choices.
Once he chose an entirely new color, purple, and I asked him why. He said he thought it would be hot.
Utilizing Both Sides of My Brain
At age 46, I began to write poetry seriously. I allowed an unconscious process to drive my poems. When I started, I had little idea where it would go. But it seemed to work, and soon I was invited to give readings, and often — especially at universities — both the writing majors and premeds were invited. At the time, it was unusual for those two groups of people to mix.
I was told frequently that it was rare for someone to be good at both right brain (imagination, invention) and left brain (organization, logic) activities. (Of course, this ignores that there were notable poets who were physicians, such as Oliver Wendel Holmes.)
But it made me wonder why the “right brain/left brain” differentiation was considered so significant? This theory was generally accepted in the 1960s due to the research of psychobiologist and Nobel Prize winner Roger W. Sperry. He found that the left brain is more verbal, analytical, and orderly than the right brain. Those who are left-brain dominant are connected to logic, math, and organization. Right brain dominance is more visual, intuitive, and creative.
While the theory didn’t hold up under scrutiny of the MRI and other studies, it’s still a widely accepted notion in popular culture.
My non-scientific guess for why many people function as though they were left or right brain is conditioning.
In medical school, there is a great emphasis on remembering large quantities of information. Creating a diagnosis was taught as the product of a formula: order a ton of tests and scans and process that information to achieve the answer. For art school and poetry M.F.A.’s, the incentive is to be inventive.
Thinking Outside The “Left Brain/Right Brain” Box
But the doctors who most impressed me were the best of both worlds — they knew a lot and could think out of the box. They came up against a difficult case and believed in taking a thorough history and thorough physical exam. They listened more closely to the heart and lungs, and the listening can’t be taught by text. A balanced approach can serve artists as well, who might benefit from formal techniques to improve upon their work.
My guess is most of us can do both, but don’t. Our lives are easily structured. We may have found our path to make an adequate or even a very good living, and work leads to work. We think there is no time to try to write or go back and take advanced courses in economics or Boolean math.
As a young boy in the ’50s, I was out on my own all day, often biking several towns away. One trip almost weekly was to the Hempstead Library, where the wonderful Mrs. Mahoney always saved two new books for me. It included the classics but also plays. She helped shepherd an eager kid to both the right and left.
In college, I was the first student who hadn’t majored in science to go to med school. Similarly, I was the only non-science major entering my med school. There it was. You were steered hard right or left. Thankfully now a high percent of med school kids major in philosophy, history, English lit.
We see many more doctors becoming good writers and even artists.
Right brain/left brain was always too simplistic. I just plunged ahead if something interested me. Do what you love — it can be more than one thing.
Marc Straus is an oncologist and former Chairman of Oncology and Professor of Medicine. He’s also an art collector, gallery owner, author, and poet. He has authored some 100 scientific papers and edited three textbooks on lung cancer in addition to three collections of poetry. The MARC STRAUS gallery represents 24 artists from 16 different countries. Originally focused on emerging artists not previously exhibited in New York, it is now mixed with a few mid-career and late-career artists from the U.S., Asia, and Europe. See marcstraus.com for more info.
His newest book, One-Legged Mongoose: Secrets, Legacies and Coming of Age in 1950s New York, will be released this September. Connect with Marc on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. Sign up for his newsletter here