Lawrence Stark Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Mind's Eye: Conversation with Lawrence Stark, M.D., Professor Emeritus of Engineering and Optometry; 8/16/00 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Professor Stark, welcome to our show.

Thank you very much.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in New York, but I was raised in my early life in Chicago and New York.

And how did your parents shape your character, do you think?

I always say that I really hated my mother's criticism because she was always right. My father was an engineer; he had graduated from MIT as a chemical engineer in 1920. I think that's one of the reasons I was always interested in engineering.

What books did you read as a young person? Was it a bookish family?

Yes, yes. I remember when I was in first grade I got a prize for reading, because I knew how to read before I went to school. And I was just telling one of my children that the first book that I really fell in love with as a novel was Pearl Buck's The Good Earth. I must have read that when I was about nine.

What drew you to it?

I think it was just around.

But something must have excited you about it, if you still remember it.

I don't know exactly ... I read very voraciously many, many things. So it wasn't choosing the book, but enjoying it and being pulled into the history of a family over many generations that struck me. I read a lot of science books, also. Biology and physics and so on.

Did you have any teachers or mentors that influenced you as a young person?

Yes. I was a young herpetologist. I collected snakes. I was also interested in genetics of mice, so I had snakes and mice. The Brooklyn Children's Museum was near my home, and there was a very kind curator named Mr. Denslow, who was a descendant of the early Dutch families in Brooklyn, and he was very kind to young students. Also, when I was very young, in high school, I met an ichthyologist, a man who studied the genetics of fish, named Dr. Myron Gordon. He worked at the Museum of Natural History and I used to volunteer every Saturday and work with him taking care of his fish. I had got to doing histology and I understood the genetics, and he was a wonderful, brilliant scientist who was well-known. He's passed on now, but he was well-known in his field.

What excited you about science?

It's hard to say. My friends were mathematicians, engineers, physicists, and somehow we all were curious about how things worked. Not so much about what people said about it, but how nature worked, how things were put together, how things came apart.

In addition to being a scientist and a medical doctor, which we'll talk about in a minute, you're also an engineer. I'm curious: as a child, a young adult, did you do a lot of tinkering and fixing things and so on?

Well, I took my mother's typewriter apart once.

She must have loved that.

I put it together, and she was very proud and told all the neighbors how I had done this feat. But I was very quiet because I knew there were three or four screws I hadn't put back in. And after a few weeks, it broke and she was very upset.

Very good. Where did you do your undergraduate work?

I went to Columbia College. That was a wonderful place. I majored in English and biology and zoology. There were wonderful teachers there, and wonderful classroom experiences. I don't think I missed a class in my one year and nine months as an undergraduate.

Why such a short time?

It was during the war, and I went into the navy. If I could finish my junior year, the navy was willing to send me to medical school. So in one year and nine months I did six terms of work and the navy sent me to medical school. And that's why I'm a doctor.

I see. So, was it ...

It was a force majeur.

Was it a target of opportunity or did you really want to be a doctor?

I don't think I really wanted to be a doctor, I wanted to be a scientist. But it was ... it was orders. You just follow orders.

Did you practice medicine after the navy?

Oh, yes. After I got out of medical school and internship, I did research at Oxford and University College, London, in neurophysiology. And biochemistry, biophysics. And then I went back into the navy, and then I was an assistant professor of neurology at Yale University Medical School. From 1948, when I finished medical school, until 1960, twelve years with a gap of a year and a half or two years in England, I practiced medicine.

You were a neurologist?


What drew you to neurology?

I had done research in neurophysiology, so it seemed a natural subject. I was interested in the electroencephalogram. And I had a wonderful opportunity to be a fellow at the neurological institute at Columbia Medical Center with some wonderful people. A man named Paul Herfa, Houston Merritt, and it was there that I met Gil Glasher, who was the first professor of neurology at Yale, who asked me to join his department when he got out of the navy.

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