The Johns Hopkins Gazette: February 18, 2002
February 18, 2002
VOL. 31, NO. 22


Time Out With: Ed McCarthy, pathologist and erstwhile cellist

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Edward McCarthy says he grew up in a rough neighborhood. How rough? Well, for one, he had to fight to keep his musical instrument out of harmís way. Then again, any 10-year-old who lugs a cello down the street in inner-city Cleveland does have a bit of a target on his back.

The now grownup McCarthy, a professor of pathology and orthopedic surgery in the School of Medicine, no longer has to resort to fist-a-cuffs for the sake of his art. But if someone were to start trouble these days, three women ďgot his back.Ē

For the past year McCarthy and his cello have been making beautiful music with a trio of string-playing medical students. The Vesalius String Quartet, as they call themselves, have two live performances under their belts and are currently rehearsing for their third and fourth. The first two took place at the Weinberg Building lobby--and attracted more than 100 people each--as part of The Art of Healing music and lecture series, a gig theyíll repeat at noon on Thursday, Feb. 21. The Vesalius String Quartet also will perform at 6 p.m. on March 6 in Hurd Hall at The Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The Vesalius String Quartet: Rowena McBeath, Mary King, Ingrid Burger and Ed McCarthy.

For McCarthy, the hospital venue could not be more appropriate. The connection between music and medicine has long held a fascination for this award-winning teacher, who is currently writing a book on the subject.

The son of two talented vocalists--an opera-singer mother and a dentist with a golden voice--McCarthy was classically trained from an early age and occasionally flirted with the idea of a musical career. Instead, he chose his true calling, medicine, the study and practice of which has kept him away from his beloved cello for long stretches.

McCarthy recently sat down with The Gazette to discuss these periods of semiretirement, the Vesalius String Quartet, his book-in-progress, his teaching and being the weakest link.

Q: How did this string quartet of yours first get together?
A: I was on the admissions committee for the Medical School, and three years ago I interviewed a very outstanding candidate who happened to be a very good violist. To my good luck she was accepted, and after she was well established here, she called me up and asked if I was interested in playing chamber music. I happily agreed. I was aware of a violinist, Rowena McBeath, who was in the class ahead of her. She was actually somewhat of a child prodigy in the violin before she decided she wanted to be a doctor. I asked her if she wanted to play in a quartet. The violist, whose name is Mary King, knew a second violinist, Ingrid Burger, who she had already played with. So we got together and we tried out how we would sound to each other, and it sounded wonderful.

Q: Where does the groupís name come from?
A: Vesalius was a 15th-century anatomist who was innovative in that he was really an artist. He dissected the human body to learn the anatomy, and he published all his drawings--which were some of the first drawings that were well done and accurate--of what the human body anatomy looked like.

Q: Are you the ďteacherĒ in this quartet?
A: Iím the weak link. I really have to study and practice hard to keep up with them. I practice a lot more than Iím sure they do.

Q: So, earlier you werenít just loosely throwing around the term ďprodigyĒ?
A: No. Rowena, our first violinist, played a violin concerto with a full orchestra when she was about 14. She is quite gifted. When she was at Yale, she was the concertmistress at the orchestra there. She could easily have made music a career instead of medicine.

Q: So far youíve played only on the East Baltimore campus. Do you aspire to play in any larger or professional venue?
A: It would be nice. Of course, we are at the time constraints of the medical students, who have a harder time finding more time to practice. When I was in medical school, I virtually didnít touch my cello, so I consider it quite a commitment to the love of music that these young women are still able to play while they are in medical school.

Q: Have you had other such dry spells with your cello playing?
A: I didnít play for most of medical school and for my entire residency. It sort of goes in five-year spurts where Iíll get very into it and then Iíll get very frustrated because I canít get any better than I am at that level, and Iíll say, letís take a rest. Then there are other times where Iíll get so busy with work. For example, when I was working on my textbooks of bone pathology I didnít have any other life at all. I didnít even touch the cello during that period of time.

Q: Can a cello player get rusty?
A: Oh, yeah. Itís not like piano, when you can sit down and tinkle out a tune and it sounds reasonably good. You have to be really ďonĒ for a long period of time--months--before you sound good.

Q: When did you first pick up the cello?
A: I started when I was in fourth grade. I played all through high school and a little bit into college. I had friends at Juilliard, and I was across the street at Columbia University; we played together quite a bit. I was also in the orchestra at Columbia for about a year and a half. Then I got too busy with premedical stuff. That was really the end of my unbroken line of playing. I was pretty good at one time, but never quite good enough that I knew I could be a professional.

Q: Was that ever a consideration?
A: Yeah, I thought about it at times. I probably was not wanting to make the leap. Also, my parents had sort of groomed me to be a doctor. I was always going to be a doctor; music was always going to be a hobby.

Q: Why the cello?
A: When I showed up to have an instrument in the fourth grade, the cello was the only one that was left.

Q: Did you study at Peabody?
A: No, but one of my teachers after I came to the Hopkins faculty was Stephen Kates, who is like the premier cello pedagogue in the country, and he teaches at Peabody. I would go there for my lessons. It was quite an honor to work with him.

Q: From the quartetís first practice to now, can you hear the difference?
A: Iím a lot better as an individual because Iíve been practicing a lot. The group is much more confident playing together now. Iím not the professor when I play with them--Iím just one of them. The first violinist is the boss. Sheís in charge, and that is the way it should be.

Q: You performed in ďThe Art of HealingĒ music series. Are the therapeutic values of music something you firmly believe in?
A: Ever since my residency days Iíve looked for ways that medicine related to music. That connection has always interested me, and Iíve been on a lifelong sort of quest to study those connections. That started the idea of [my current project,] writing a book on medicine and music. There are books out there on the subject, but none of them has quite the vision I have in mind. For example, there are several books on the illnesses of great composers and how whatever illness that person had influenced the composerís life. Well, that would be a part of my book, but there are a lot of other aspects of music and medicine--physiological effects of music on the body, illnesses that players get. Some instruments have their own set of abnormalities that you get if you play them too much.

Q: What about the therapeutic value of music?
A: Well, yes, there is a whole other field called music therapy. Oliver Sachs, in his book Awakenings, writes quite eloquently about the effect of music on someone with Parkinsonís disease. Someone might be very Parkinsonian when they are sitting quietly, but when you play music, all of a sudden they can lose some of their dystonia and move around freely simply because the music integrates the way their nervous system works.

Q: Do you espouse your love of art and music to your students?
A: When I work with my students, I usually try to enrich medicine, which can be considered very narrow and one-sided, with the rest of life. My interest has always been the relationship of medicine to the arts in general. I used to teach courses in medicine and the humanities: medicine and art, medicine in literature. I believe all of those touch on the art of being a doctor rather than the science of being a doctor. On the scientific side of medicine, you have definite right answers, but in the art of medicine, there is a lot of ambiguity. There is no better way to help us live with ambiguity than through the arts.

Q: Do you think a studentís musical ability will translate at all when he or she becomes a doctor?
A: Well, youíve got to be focused to be a musician. For example, when Iím on the admissions committee and I see someone who is a world-class violinist in addition to being a stellar student, I know that student has something else, something extra. That extra is the ability to commit to something, the ability to focus, to stick with something long enough to be great.

Q: What happens when your fellow string quartet players graduate? Have you started to think about that?
A: Fortunately, two of them are Ph.D. candidates in addition to being M.D. candidates. So they will be here for six years at least. The violist? Maybe we can talk her into doing her residency here.