(July 31, 2018) — A member of the faculty at Georgetown University School of Medicine since 1961, Donald Knowlan, MD, professor emeritus, has been recognized repeatedly for his excellence in teaching. However, in his annual talk at the White Coat Ceremony, Knowlan tells the incoming students that the patient is the most important teacher they will ever have.
For more than 15 years, Knowlan has welcomed first-year students at the School of Medicine by giving the Edmund Pellegrino Professionalism Lecture at the ceremony, where he also leads the newly coated students in reciting the Hippocratic Oath for the first time.
Before he addresses the Class of 2022 at their White Coat Ceremony on August 3, Knowlan shared his passion for teaching, his favorite part of the ceremony and the importance of keeping the focus on the patient.
‘I just love to teach’
After graduating with his medical degree from St. Louis University in 1954, Knowlan came to Georgetown for his residency, which was briefly interrupted by his service in the U.S. Navy. His early career experiences at Georgetown inspired him to become an educator.
“When I came here, it was after World War II and there was a great upsweep in medical care,” Knowlan said. “It happened that they got a couple of guys who were interested in teaching and as we came in as residents and interns, they encouraged us to be involved with teaching and the students.”
In addition to serving as a founding member of the MAGIS Society of Master Teachers, Knowlan was the inaugural inductee into the Golden Orchard, which recognizes faculty members who have received three or more Golden Apple Awards from Georgetown students.
“I just love to teach,” he said. “The only one who learns is the teacher. If you want to learn something, teach it. And that‘s what I do and that‘s what I did. I loved medicine and I liked it more and more. And I was able to be involved in teaching.”
Reconnecting with Old Friends, Former Students
Because of his long tenure at Georgetown, Knowlan has seen the children and grandchildren of alumni participate in the White Coat Ceremony as incoming students, often coated by their parents or grandparents. Having the opportunity to reconnect with former students and old friends is one of his favorite parts of the ceremony.
“You run into people, that’s the fun of it,” he said. “Many people you teach, from every class, there’s probably 10 or 15 mothers, fathers, grandfathers, uncles. They come up to me and say, ‘Remember me?’ And often I do.”
In 2013, Knowlan was onstage for the White Coat Ceremony when he was approached by the grandfather of an incoming student and an old friend, William C. Roberts, MD, executive director of the Baylor Heart and Vascular Institute and editor-in-chief of the Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings. With Knowlan’s permission, Roberts included his lecture talk in the publication.
Focus on the patient
In his poignant remarks at the White Coat Ceremony, Knowlan usually mentions the joys of pursuing a career in medicine without shying away from its demands. He quickly summarizes how the field of medicine has changed from his own medical school graduation in 1954 to the present day.
Above all, Knowlan challenges students to dedicate themselves to their patients, especially as medicine becomes increasingly specialized. “It is so important to be focused on the patient, more than ever rather than less than ever,” he said. “That’s the focus of my talk this year. To find the specific treatment for the specific patient so that they get the right thing, the doctor has to be very focused on the patient.”
“I think that’s the key to the whole thing, to remember what you’re doing,” Knowlan said. “You’re there to help the patient and improve his situation.”