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An Amazing Human Being
Among O'Donnell's favorites are tales about a parasitic worm crawling out someone's nose during a card game; about a perfect storm of circumstances that resulted in a college football team getting hepatitis and having to cancel their season; and about diagnosing pinworms by collecting the eggs using Scotch tape affixed to a Popsicle stick. "He tells about sneaking up on your [sleeping] kid at night . . . with this contraption, lowering the [kid's] pajamas, and touching the tape to the perianal area," O'Donnell says. "But of course you have to have a great story if the kid wakes up."
What's Pfefferkorn's secret? Beyond his gruesomely fascinating subject matter, of course. "I take substantial pleasure in teaching," he says. To perfect his technique, he not only practices each lecture at least three times in front of his fireplace at home, but he admits to picking up ideas—and improving on them—from teachers he's observed over the years. "From every single one of them I've learned something about teaching. In some cases, it was a lesson in what not to do."
But from others, he gleaned insights into what to do. For example, he perfected a technique used by Dr. Larry Kilham, a now-deceased DMS virologist whose "teaching was very much dependent on short historical sketches of great virologists of the past and how they contributed to the emergence of a new field." And Pfefferkorn attributes the way he greets students—saying "Good morning, my young virologists" or "Good morning, my young parasitologists," depending on the class he's teaching— to the late Dr. Harold Brown, an eminent parasitologist at Columbia who would address students as "my young colleagues."
Pfefferkorn's stories are legendary at DMS. "The storytelling is not just to keep
Armed only with old-fashioned slide and overhead projectors, Pfefferkorn is still enthralling today's technologically savvy students. "He manages to animate the class without PowerPoint," says a second-year student.
the students awake," he insists, but also "to emphasize an important point that I hope they will remember." He says his philosophy of teaching medical students is simple: "I try to be absolutely clear and absolutely fascinating." He pauses and his eyes twinkle mischievously. "Occasionally, of course," he continues, "there's a conflict between being absolutely clear and absolutely fascinating, and I don't always aim for absolutely clear." He laughs. "If I'm forced to choose, I go for fascination."
"Elmer was clearly one of the most fascinating lecturers," says Dr. Joseph Schwartzman, a DMS '72 and a longtime member of the pathology department. "I think my class and all the other classes I've ever heard of would show up for whatever lecture Elmer was giving."
"Elmer entertains them with the subject [and] anecdotes that relate to the subject," says Dr. Michael Fanger, who succeeded Pfefferkorn as chair of the Department of Microbiology in 1992. But "it doesn't come across as somebody doing entertaining. It's somebody telling stories about a particular part of science that you tend to remember and you remember well."
Armed only with old-fashioned slide and overhead projectors, Pfefferkorn is still enthralling today's technologically savvy students. "He manages to animate the class without PowerPoint," says second-year Amanda Thornton. "Of course, his stories were themost exciting part of his lecture—they almost always had a point. He had a story about a football team with hepatitis, and also one about how one could coax bedbugs to emerge in the classiest hotels—by turning off the lights and then abruptly turning them back on. He was just really interesting to listen to."
"He had, as far as I can tell, absolutely a unique way of distilling very complicated concepts, making them understandable