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The Natural


Outgoing chairman Charlie Cummings with his wife, Jane, at a dinner in his honor in October 2003.

During Charlie Cummings’ senior year at Dartmouth, he came to Johns Hopkins to interview for medical school with an austere man whose name he no longer remembers. “Personally, I can guarantee you won’t get into Hopkins,” growled the man, surveying Cummings’ modest academic record. “But I’ll be very surprised if you get into any medical school. I suggest you go into some other life’s work.”

That was Cummings’ only contact with Hopkins until he was recruited to become chairman of otolaryngology–head and neck surgery in 1991, “a very satisfying moment,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. Now 68, Cummings handed the baton over to Lloyd Minor (see story above) in December. The former chairman keeps a small office at the corner farthest from his old suite, where his colleagues nonetheless come knocking. “I want to be useful, but I don’t in any way want to cloud the future for the department.”

Cummings will continue seeing patients with head and neck cancer, those “extraordinarily brave, hearty and appreciative” people faced with “the cruelest of entities.” Their plight is, in fact, what drew him to the field in the first place. “It strips people of the ability to communicate and to interface with society because of the cosmetic effects of the treatment. You can’t hide it. You can’t put clothing over it.”

In addition to practicing medicine, Cummings will become the first physician member of the negotiating team for Johns Hopkins International. He also plans to continue teaching medical students and will head up the search committee for a new chairman for the Department of Urology. What spare time is left will be reserved for writing poetry, glass blowing, and breeding German Shepherds. He now has seven grandchildren.

Cummings’ touch with people has benefitted more than patients. Early on, lacking the confidence to make “notable discoveries” and preferring patient care, he shunned academic medicine for private practice. But within a few years, he switched and never looked back, and today has spawned more chairmen in his field than any other person.

He did it by staying in the background. “You need to be willing to recognize unbridled talent and let it grow at your own expense,” he explains. “The best chair is able to push himself away from the opportunities and divert them to his flock. There’s extraordinary joy in that, on balance, more joy than in having baubles come your way.”

—MEM

 

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