Joseph J. Ceithaml, dean of students emeritus for the Pritzker School of Medicine and the Biological Sciences Division and professor emeritus of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Chicago, died on Saturday, May 11. He was 96.
Ceithaml served as dean of students in medicine and the biological sciences from 1951 to 1986, shepherding the academic careers of 2,914 future physicians and 1,460 research biologists. He was a central figure in shaping the character of medical and biological education at UChicago, building the medical school’s national reputation and attracting many of the nation’s best and most well-rounded students to the program.
He also was influential at the national level in efforts to expand the pool of applicants for medical schools. He fought the idea that the standard biology-based “pre-med” curriculum was a prerequisite and sought students with diverse interests, origins and socio-economic backgrounds. When he became dean of students, half of all medical students came from families with incomes in the top fifth of the population. Changing that meant funding need-based scholarships.
“Dean Ceithaml made it possible for thousands of students to develop into outstanding doctors and scientists, and he was firmly committed to ensuring that students received financial aid, thus allowing more flexibility in their career decisions,” said Holly Humphrey, current dean for medical education at the University of Chicago. “He was a kind and generous man who placed student well-being at the top of his priority list.”
Ceithaml was a tireless advocate for students, helping them progress through their medical education without amassing huge debts. He grew the medical school’s no-interest loan fund program from $25,000 in 1951 to more than $6 million in 1986. The Ceithaml Scholarship, named in his honor, funds the medical education of many students each year and continues to expand.
“Dr. Ceithaml was one of the most revered student deans in the country,” said Norma Wagoner, who became dean of students soon after Ceithaml stepped down. “He served as a mentor to many, and was the most important mentor in my own life. He was one of a kind.”
During his 35 years as dean, Ceithaml developed the Medical Scientist Training Program at the University, obtaining federal funding in 1967 for what would become one of the leading programs in the country. He implemented the medical school’s pass/fail system. He also helped develop the centralized American Medical College Application Service through the Association of American Medical Colleges.
“He was the kind of person you would want to have with you in tough times,” said his friend, cardiologist Louis Cohen, professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Chicago and a former member of the admissions committee. “He was dependable, loyal, reliable and incorruptible. No one ever bought their way into this medical school.”
Ceithaml’s family can vouch for that. When his son, Eric, now chief of pediatric cardiovascular surgery at the University of Florida at Jacksonville, was looking at medical schools, his father told him: “Don’t even apply here. You won’t get in. Your grades are not good enough.”
“He did put in a good word for me at another medical school,” Eric said. “He was strict and he had high expectations, but he was always supportive, always there for us. If you had a problem or a challenge, he would help you sort it out. That’s why so many med students loved him unconditionally.”
His daughter, Lenore, who practices immigration law in San Diego, said UChicago and the medical students were like a second family to him. “He kept in touch with them after graduation and remembered all their names and details about their lives,” she said. “He left quite the legacy.”
Colleague Frank Fitch, professor emeritus of pathology and a former member of the admissions committee, lauded Ceithaml for his ability to discern the quality of a student applicant.
“Joe had a fantastic talent for recruiting the really good students, a knack for spotting those with tremendous potential even if they had some questionable credentials, and the talent and inclination, almost paternal, to help those who got into difficulties,” Fitch said. “There are not many people around like him.”
Born May 23, 1916, into a family of Czechoslovakian immigrants on the Southwest Side of Chicago, Joseph James Ceithaml graduated from Lindblom High School as valedictorian of his class. He was the first of his parents’ six children to go to college. He entered the University of Chicago in 1933, where he discovered a passion for biochemistry. After graduating in 1937, he entered the biochemistry doctoral program and completed his PhD in 1941, just weeks before Pearl Harbor was bombed. In May 1942, he married Ann Bednarik, a high school friend.
During World War II, Ceithaml worked on a malaria-research project based at the University of Chicago and run by the Office of Scientific Research and Development of the U.S. War Manpower Commission. In 1946, he was named an assistant professor of biochemistry at the University of Chicago. He also worked part time as a pre-med adviser. In 1948, he and his wife left Chicago for a post-doctoral fellowship at California Institute of Technology, where he worked with geneticist George Beadle—who would win the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1958 and become president of the University of Chicago in 1961.
In 1949, after completing his fellowship, Ceithaml returned to the University of Chicago. In 1950, he won the University’s Quantrell Award, the highest honor bestowed upon undergraduate teachers. In 1951, he was named dean of students for medicine and biological sciences. He was promoted to professor in 1958. He retired in 1986 at age 70.
As dean of students, Ceithaml was revered for his in-depth knowledge about every student and for his efforts to help students with academic, financial or personal problems. He tackled similar issues at the national level, serving as chairman of the Association of American Medical Colleges’ committee on medical student financing, from 1961 to 1964, and as vice chairman and chairman of the Group on Student Affairs, 1965 to 1969. He also served on the board of directors of the National Resident Matching Program from 1967 to 1980, during the period when the computerized Match system was implemented.
“Joe and two other student deans founded the Group on Student Affairs at the AAMC,” Wagoner said. “When he spoke, everyone listened, and very few ever refuted anything he had to say. His brilliant, practical, down-to-earth solutions always seemed to be on target. As a result, many of the policies that govern the Group on Student Affairs today initially came from him.”
Among those students who Ceithaml impacted: Ted Steck, professor emeritus of biochemistry and molecular biology.
“He was totally committed to the students, the University and his job,” recalled Steck, who was interviewed by Ceithaml when he applied to the medical school and later became Ceithaml’s department chairman. “I should add that he always had the same hair style—a crew cut, flat on top—for all the decades I knew him.”
Ceithaml received several career honors but was particularly proud of the 1982 Gold Key Award, which recognizes outstanding and loyal service to the Biological Sciences Division and to the University of Chicago, and for having the medical student and alumni center named for him, just before he retired.
“His hobbies kept him fit long after he retired,” said Ernest Mhoon, professor of surgery at the University of Chicago. “He played squash, he loved fishing and he enjoyed hiking through the woods looking for mushrooms, which he often shared with my wife and me. We would not ordinarily eat wild mushrooms, but this was Joe Ceithaml. We trusted him.”
Ann, his wife of 43 years, died of cancer in 1985. Ceithaml is survived by his second wife, Mildred, whom he married in 1989, and her son Bob Husa; two children, Lenore and Eric; Eric’s wife Susan; three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Services were private. A memorial service at UChicago is being planned. In lieu of flowers, donations should be made to the Pritzker School of Medicine: Joseph J. Ceithaml Scholarship Fund, designed to lessen the large debt burden medical students often face upon graduation.