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Ira Schwartz, Exemplary Teacher of the Year, instills the ‘gift of a life in medicine’ in students
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Recognized as having an impact in the classroom and beyond, Ira Schwartz has followed a “non-linear” path to family and preventive medicine, global health, becoming a role model in medical education and more.

— Kay Hinton, Emory Photo/Video

It is rewarding to be a successful clinician and care for sick people. But all doctors experience failure. One has to find gratification in the often imprecise and messy process of helping care for people who are suffering and in pain.”

Ira Schwartz grew up as part of a Jewish family in New York City. “I was one of those curious and annoying kids who was constantly asking questions. A city kid who liked being out in nature,” he says. “My mom was a kindergarten teacher, my dad was a first-generation college student — after being in the U.S. Army during World War II, he went to law school and became an attorney. I’m not sure they understood my fascination with science and medicine, but they were always supportive of me wanting to become a doctor.”

Schwartz may have become a doctor, but his career has also encompassed teaching. He is this year’s Exemplary Teacher of the Year recipient because of his impact in the classroom and beyond.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from Union College in upstate New York during the Woodstock era, where he read voraciously and enjoyed mucking about in ponds and studying ecosystems in the field. When he first applied to medical school, he wasn’t accepted in the U.S. Taken aback, he regrouped and decided to go to Université Libre de Bruxelles (Free University of Brussels) in Belgium, where he went to medical school for two years (at $150 dollars a year!) — and improved his French.

“Life is seldom a straight line. And if it is, it’s boring,” Schwartz says.

When he reapplied in the States, he was accepted to Chicago Medical School, where he eventually decided to specialize in pediatrics.

“I found pediatricians to be my kind of people,” he says. “I thought that I would enjoy — and learn to be competent at — taking care of sick kids, working with families, teaching children and parents about illness and wellness, and providing longitudinal care.”  

Schwartz completed his residency in pediatrics at Children’s Memorial Hospital at Northwestern University Medical Center, followed by a fellowship in infectious diseases at the University of Chicago.

After reading the essays “Annals of Epidemiology” in the New Yorker magazine, Schwartz became fascinated by the work of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). He applied to become one of the agency’s “disease detectives” of the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS), and was accepted — but for the following summer.

During the “gap year,” he started working at a neonatal ICU. Then he saw an ad in the New York Times saying that doctors were needed for refugee relief work in Southeast Asia, so he applied to the International Rescue Committee.  

That became the next stop on his nonlinear life journey.

“This was in the 1980s, and I was at a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border,” he says. “My first day, I treated a 16-year-old with a fractured ankle from stepping on a landmine. I knew that I wasn’t in Chicago anymore.”

When it was time for his EIS training to begin, Schwartz moved to Atlanta and spent three years working in malaria epidemiology for the CDC’s Division of Parasitic Diseases.

“We were seeing drug-resistant malaria in Africa, so I was assigned to work in Kenya, Tanzania and the Congo, putting my infectious diseases fellowship to good use.”

He returned to Atlanta, married a lawyer and took a CDC position in Nairobi, Kenya.

“Our daughter was born in Atlanta, our son was born in Nairobi,” he says. “We eventually decided to make Atlanta home; that’s how I ended up at Emory.”  (The children are now grown; their daughter is an architect and their son is a filmmaker.)

In Atlanta, as around the globe, AIDS had become an epidemic and, over the course of a few years, Schwartz became “at some level, an AIDS doctor.”

He spent part of every week at Grady Hospital’s Ponce Clinic in Atlanta, seeing children with HIV/AIDS. During that profound experience, he realized that true, impactful health care involves not only the patient but the family and the community — and not only clinicians but also scientists, researchers, health educators and “even caring politicians.”

After he came to Emory as faculty in 1991, teaching at the School of Medicine and Rollins School of Public Health, Schwartz excelled at connecting with and mentoring students.

When he received the Evangeline T. Papageorge Distinguished Teaching Award in 2013, the most prestigious award given to medical faculty, his student nominators wrote, “Dr. Schwartz has been critical in our evolution throughout medical school and will undoubtedly continue to be a role model for all of us not only in our medical careers but for our lives in general.”

“Ira is an amazing teacher–in the lecture hall, small group room or in his office,” says his longtime colleague Bill Eley, executive associate dean of medical education and student affairs at Emory.

Today, Schwartz fills multiple roles at Emory: associate professor of family and preventive medicine, assistant professor of global health and behavioral sciences and health education, associate dean for medical education and student affairs, and dean of admissions for Emory School of Medicine.

“We aspire to have a student body that reflects and respects the diversity of our society. Our faculty are intentional about educating our students with this goal: Emory medical school graduates are prepared to practice excellent medicine anywhere in the world,” Schwartz says.

That goal could be Schwartz’s reason for asking thousands of students an important question during his 15 years as director of admissions at the School of Medicine: “Why do you want to be a doctor?”

And yet, when reviewing his own career path, he admits, “You have no idea where your life is taking you. None of my life story has been planned. I have had the privilege of connecting with many different people, forming relationships and taking advantage of extraordinary professional opportunities when they present themselves. It’s the gift of a life in medicine.”

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