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John Gearhart
 
John Gearhart
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John Gearhart Interview

Stem Cell Research

June 18, 1999
Washington, D.C.

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  John Gearhart

We understand you grew up in an orphanage in Philadelphia. How did that come about?


John Gearhart: This was a decision that my mother had made following the death of my dad, who was a coal miner in Western Pennsylvania and I was placed in an institution called Girard College, which is sort of a strange name, but it was one that was set up by Steven Girard who was a banker and merchant and mariner, who funded the War of 1812 almost solely by himself, which is interesting. A very wealthy man and he had set up an orphanage, and so I was placed there for ten years.

[ Key to Success ] Courage


I spent ten years in the inner city in Philadelphia from 1950 to 1960.

What ages were you then?

John Gearhart: From six to 16 or 17, from first grade through high school.

Did you have brothers or sisters?

John Gearhart: I have two brothers, one older and one younger. The older one was sent away as well and the younger one remained with my mother for that period.

What was it like in the orphanage? What sort of education did you get there?

John Gearhart: I was in an accelerated group within the class in 12th grade, and all of my classmates were going to college. It was a very good place to learn academically.


It was a regimented school kind of a thing and they had control of you for 24 hours a day. So you were up at study hall at 5:30 in the morning, then you would have breakfast, then you would go to school, and the academics were very rigorous and everyone did extremely well as you can imagine. I mean, in the evening you had another long study hall so you really learned some good kinds of habits which I would say I carry toady. I get up extremely early in the morning -- at 4:00 o'clock -- and I study and I read.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation


This is when I do most of my stuff, so there are some good things that came out of that.

What person inspired you most as a young person?

John Gearhart: I don't know. My heroes were all athletes at that time. I lived in an all male institution. Testosterone levels were extremely high. Athletics was the big thing.

Who were your sports heroes? Any particular athletes?

John Gearhart: Oh sure. There were always the Mickey Mantles and any baseball or football stars, that kind of thing. No real heroes though.


We were disconnected, I mean from the world, in the sense that this institution had -- a remarkable place -- it had a wall that was 12 or 15 feet high. It was up the street from the Eastern State Penitentiary. It looked every bit like it. We were only allowed outside these gates for brief periods of time so it was really like a little, you know, sequestered -- although there were a thousand kids in there. It was a very isolated kind of a thing.

[ Key to Success ] Courage


Were there any books you read when you were young that meant a lot to you?

John Gearhart: We had an English teacher at Girard by the name of Caswell MacGregor, who gave us a very classic English kind of literature and vocabulary, as part of our academic foundation. We were exposed to a lot of the English literature you would expect to see coming out of Eton or Rugby, this really hard-lined, institutional, all-male kinds of literature. I remember some of these things having an impact.

Was there any particular book that influenced you?

John Gearhart: No, I can't say there was any particular book. I think it was that whole genre of stories of male interactions and life in these kinds of institutions. At that time I wasn't into reading. My real reading didn't begin until I was actually a post-doc years later, so I had a lot of making up to do, going back and reading a lot of the classic things. I'm an intense reader now. I read everything. I don't do TV. Whenever I have time, I read a lot of books.

What about that post-doc period, were there books that were particularly meaningful?

John Gearhart: Oh yes. Milan Kundera's books, H.L. Mencken, Mark Twain. Everything interested me to be honest. Arrowsmith was very important, Sinclair Lewis's book. This was a very important book because Arrowsmith paints a very good picture of being in science and medicine. It is one of the very few books in fiction that really makes a very positive presentation of what it's like to be in medicine or science.


If you look at the scientists in literature, it is always very negative. It's -- you know, manipulating, always mucking around where they shouldn't. You know that kind of thing, the Frankenstein portrayal. I mean, this is what scientists were about. But Arrowsmith I really, really appreciated and I still do, and I urge my students. Now that we are now on this cutting edge of reproductive technologies and clonings and stem cells -- which are all thrown together now -- I find myself before groups trying to talk about the scientist and the responsibilities of a scientist in our society.


The perception of the scientist has been so negative for such a long time, and it still continues to be when you see someone saying we should be cloning humans, and the stuff that's going on in in vitro fertilization clinics and things. You get people saying, "Wow! What are these people about?" So I am very responsive now to arguing for the role of the scientist and what it should be, to bring credible and accurate information to the public, to be very candid about the social implications of our work, to be involved in the whole process of policy determination.

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