By Gerald C. Kempthorne, M.D.
My medical career started out in a small town in Wisconsin after medical school at the University of Maryland and training at the Cook County Hospital in Chicago. I chose to be a “big fish” in a small pond. Spring Green had no physicians, hospital, or pharmacy at the time of my arrival in 1962—fifty years ago. I grew up in a small town and found the warmth and friendliness of it to be desirable. I knew I wanted to be a part of the community and its life. Spring Green was the home of Frank Lloyd Wright, and his name and fame attracted me.
My practice grew rapidly and eventually a pharmacy came to town. Many years later, other physicians came and established practices. In 1994, after thirty-two years of family practice, I moved on to a position as a medical director in a large health insurance company where I remained for the final four years before retirement in 1998. I married my Dutch wife in Holland in 1966, and we continued the active involvement in our community that we both cherished until she was killed in an automobile accident in 1993.
In the course of practicing medicine, I had the privilege of meeting many interesting people. One in particular stood out as extraordinary because of her international fame and recognition: Svetlana Alliluyeva Peters was the only daughter of Josef Stalin. She had defected to America in 1967 and was invited to Taliesin West (Frank Lloyd Wright’s home in Scottsdale, Arizona) by Mrs. Wright. She arrived there in 1970. I met her as a patient in 1971 and remained in contact with her until her death in 2011. Over the years, we became friends and had a lengthy correspondence. She had married Wright’s protégé William Wesley Peters, and they had a daughter, Olga. Our friendship grew out of the initial patient/doctor contact. She lived in Wisconsin for much of her life after her divorce from Mr. Peters, who incidentally designed my office in downtown Spring Green. She made one trip back to Russia and also lived in England for a while.
In my view, nurturing such friendships is an important part of a life’s work. Now, at the age of eighty-two, I can look back and realize the value of knowing so many people who enriched my life with their wisdom, knowledge, and experience; in retirement, I would be very unhappy to think that I did not make the effort to get to know the people I served. The life of a small town physician gave me the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life. Now, many of them are gone. Svetlana died in November of 2011, and we talked three times just before she died. I am so pleased we were friends for forty years—until the end.
Like practicing medicine, nurturing life-long friendships requires an ability to listen. In the very early days of medical school, I had the opportunity to learn the value of listening. Our Professor of Psychiatry brought a young black man into our amphitheater. Dr. Finesinger opened the conversation by asking the patient some brief questions about his health. The man was initially intimidated but with encouragement, he began to unload his problems. He was only twenty-eight years old, married with a family, and had malignant hypertension and a bleeding ulcer. He talked about his poverty and the hopelessness of his future. We were all captivated by his candor in telling us his story. Dr. Finesinger said very little but allowed the young man the comfort he needed to talk. That young man taught us more than any book could ever do.
I live by a credo that I created for myself. Simply stated: “A life lived without a worthy purpose is but an existence.” The sage old Spring Green banker who leant me the money I needed to start my practice also said something I have always treasured: “Remember, Dr. Kempthorne, you will never get rich by gouging people.” I never forgot that admonition, and I’ve found a great sense of purpose, both in practicing medicine and in meeting interesting people.