Mention Robert G. Petersdorf, M.D., to alumni and faculty of a certain vintage, and they’re likely to tell you a story — one in which he helped shape their career. Petersdorf was chair of UW Medicine’s Department of Medicine from 1964–1979, an infectious diseases researcher and — more to the point — a tough but inspiring mentor devoted to medical students, trainees and junior faculty.
“Bob was a giant in medicine, known and revered worldwide for his profound commitment to and influence on the profession of medicine,” says Paul G. Ramsey, M.D., Dean of the School of Medicine, who counted Petersdorf as a mentor and a friend.
With his wife, Pat, Dr. Petersdorf left another educational legacy: a scholarship, made through a charitable gift annuity, created to benefit Native American students in the School of Medicine.
Close to one-fourth of the Native American population of the United States lives in the five-state region of Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho, often in rural, medically underserved areas. And because this group is under-represented in the medical profession, there is a lack of physicians who understand the particular concerns of Native American communities.
The Robert G. and Patricia Q. Petersdorf Endowed Scholarship seeks to address this situation by making it easier for Native American students to afford medical school. “We are thrilled that the Petersdorfs chose to help decrease the financial barriers to Native American students, whom we greatly need in medicine,” says William J. Bremner, M.D. ’69, Res. ’72, Ph.D., UW professor and chair of the Department of Medicine and the Robert G. Petersdorf Endowed Chair in Medicine.
The couple’s son, Stephen H. Petersdorf, M.D., Res. ’86, Fel. ’90, UW professor of medicine in the Division of Oncology and the Endowed Chair in Cancer Care, explains their motivation behind the gift. “Over the years they spent a lot of time in the Canadian and American Rockies and in other places — some of their best memories were of fishing in Neah Bay with the former dean and other faculty members — and they had some contact with Native American reservations,” Petersdorf says. “They came to understand how underserved those areas were.” What his mother and father wanted, he says, was to create a scholarship that would benefit Native American students with financial need — with the hope they’d return to their communities to provide care.
“Financial support to attract and retain Native American students is critical, because their rate of return to indigenous communities is so high,” says Victoria A. Gardner, Ed.D., director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs for the School of Medicine and interim director of the Native American Center of Excellence. “About 60 percent of the Native graduates that we’ve tracked since 1993 are working in Native American communities — either on the reservation or in urban areas.”
Monty Hawkins, a third-year medical student who is of Alaskan Native heritage, has received scholarship funding for Native American students. He agrees that scholarships are important. “Some of my classmates are going to choose a specialty based on the debt they’re going to have,” he explains. “Scholarships help mitigate that and allow people to choose based on where they think they can help the most.”
The Petersdorf Scholarship, which will help students manage their medical-school costs, caps a long history of generous giving by the Petersdorfs — including a previous gift that established the Petersdorf Chair. ”It’s wholly characteristic of Bob and his wonderful wife, Pat, that they always thought of what is core to medicine: serving those in need,” says Ramsey.
With the scholarship, Ramsey continues, the Petersdorfs supported a long-held interest in medical education for Native Americans. And, he adds, “their ethic of service will continue far into the future.”