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Michael Zubkoff, Ph.D.: Taking the long view

By Jennifer Durgin

Peter, let me tell you right up front. There is no way that we're going to bring a health-care economist in as chair of the Department of Community Medicine," James Strickler, M.D., then dean of DMS, remembers saying in 1975. Peter Whybrow, M.D., was heading a search committee charged with finding a new chair for the Department of Community Medicine (now called Community and Family Medicine); he'd just told Strickler about the committee's top choice—Michael Zubkoff, Ph.D., a Columbia University-trained economist. But hiring a health-care economist to chair a clinical department was out of the question, felt Strickler. It would be too volatile given the circumstances.

The circumstances were that four years earlier, in 1971, when DMS was being converted from a two-year basic-science feeder school to an M.D.-granting institution, the School needed more capacity for students' primary-care clerkships than was available at the Hitchcock Clinic. So Strickler and Carlton Chapman, M.D., DMS's dean at the time, created the Department of Community Medicine and charged it with finding primary- care clerkship locations throughout the region. In addition, Strickler and Chapman envisioned the department filling the role of a school of public health by addressing broader issues in medicine, such as the ethics and economics of health care.

Yet this dual mission was upsetting to many at DMS. One prominent faculty member called the department's work "fuzzy social science" that didn't belong at a medical school. So in this climate, the last thing Strickler wanted to do was rouse further opposition by bringing in an economist to head a department peopled mostly by M.D.'s. Nevertheless, Strickler agreed to meet Zubkoff and to his surprise liked him immediately. "I thought he made a lot of sense," Strickler recalls. "I thought he had good ideas. I was impressed with the way he interacted with faculty and students. I liked his values."


During Mike Zubkoff's 30 years as chair of Community and Family Medicine—a longer tenure than any other current chair—the department has become a national leader.

At the time, Zubkoff was vice chair of community and family medicine at Meharry Medical College, a historically black school in Nashville, Tenn. He had begun teaching at Meharry—and at Fisk University, another black school—in 1966, through a program of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Despite being one of only a few white faculty members at Meharry, Zubkoff fit in well. Not long after arriving there, he became responsible for organizing medical coverage at the civil rights marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Being an activist came naturally to Zubkoff. His father, a colonel in the Air Force, had earned a reputation for being "a firebrand on behalf of Jews and blacks in the military," Mike Zubkoff explains. Whenever he could, Colonel Harry Zubkoff, himself a Jew, steered military work contracts toward minority-owned businesses. He also got involved with buying houses and then reselling them to minorities who weren't able to get a foothold in certain neighborhoods.

Time and again, Mike Zubkoff has been reminded of the impact of his father's activism. The first time was in the mid-1960s, when Zubkoff went to Atlanta to meet Dr. King. Upon being introduced, King asked, "Are you one of Colonel

Zubkoff's kids?" Zubkoff stood there gaping, he recalls. "Reverend King put his hand on my shoulder and went on to tell me how proud I should be of all that the colonel had done, fighting throughout his career against prejudice and discrimination within the military, particularly towards blacks and Jews . . . knowing that he was seriously jeopardizing his career aspirations in the military."

Another "unexpected testimonial," as Zubkoff calls these events, occurred in 1974 at a federal conference on inflation. As a rapporteur for the conference, Zubkoff briefed President Gerald Ford, his economic advisors, and House and Senate leaders. "That evening, at the White House," Zubkoff recalls, "I was approached by a feisty little old-timer who asked, 'Are you one of the colonel's kids?' Upon learning that I was, he took me over to President Ford and began telling of how my dad . . . was developing innovative health programs for elderly and less fortunate residents of Miami Beach, and how these programs should be looked at as models for the nation." Only when Ford finally got a word in did Zubkoff learn the old-timer was former U.S. Senator Claude Pepper, who had helped establish the National Cancer Institute.

Though Zubkoff didn't join the Air Force, as his father had hoped he would, he still drew inspiration from the colonel's work. By 1975, when DMS was considering hiring him, Zubkoff was already making his own mark on the world. In addition to his governmental and civil rights work, Zubkoff had helped Meharry set up community- based health clinics in poor, southern towns with little access to health care. In turn, Meharry used the clinics as places for medical students and residents to do their clerkships.

This work was one of the main reasons Strickler ended up offering Zubkoff the job in 1975 and, likewise, why he accepted it. (Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business also gave Zubkoff a faculty appointment,

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Jennifer Durgin is Dartmouth Medicine magazine's senior writer.

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