MY WASHINGTON • Summer 2001


From their "dramatic" beginnings, Gordon and Susie Philpott have lived a true tale of dedication—to each other, their children, and Washington University and its School of Medicine.




Once upon a time, yet another Cinderella and Prince Charming met under unusual circumstances—this time in an eighth-grade Latin class production of Cinderella (pronounced Kin-derella)—at the John Burroughs School in St. Louis.

They looked into each other's eyes and knew, "This is it."

Gordon Philpott, M.D. '61 (now emeritus professor of surgery at the School of Medicine), says Susie Berger (now Philpott) was a talented Latin student and even now can recite her Cinderella lines without, Gordon claims, the least bit of encouragement. On the other hand, he admits he was chosen to play the Princep's because "no boys in the class could speak Latin at all—I was just the tallest."

Though they dated seriously while at Burroughs, Susie and Gordon made a pact that when they went away to college (she to Wellesley, he to Yale), they would see other people. "It wasn't wonderful," Gordon says, "but it didn't last long. Maybe a couple of years."

After High School

In Gordon's freshman year at Yale, the terra incognita (at least for him) of scientific research suddenly swam into view—to change his life forever. He got a job in the lab of his biology professor and (later) mentor, John Philip Trinkaus (father of WU Professor Erik Trinkaus, an internationally known expert on Neandertals). Gordon planned, maybe, to go into medicine, but the lab was a revelation to him.

"I got to see the research side, the scientific side of things," he says. "I loved it! I always found it intellectually more stimulating than anything else. It was probably the one place where you could actually ask questions and test hypotheses with good controls. You can't do that in clinical medicine. You have to accept some facts without adequate data and act on them, particularly as a surgeon. It was nice to be able to see both sides of it."

For a while he even considered getting a Ph.D. and going into research full time. But he says, with utter candor, "I realized that I probably wasn't smart enough" to make a career of it. He also had looked forward with genuine pleasure to working with patients, so he concluded "that I was better suited to the clinical world."

A Perfect Match

Because of his lab experience, he was careful when it came to choosing a medical school. In the fall of 1957, he was back home in St. Louis and was a first-year medical student at the Washington University School of Medicine.

Gordon says, "It was an exciting time. Washington University was expanding its horizons, and the medical school was always in line with that, always a step ahead.

"It was a very research-oriented school, which was important to me, and it was very strong clinically. Yet basic sciences were very strong—and have gotten stronger over the years. That balance, if you like, was the appeal for me. And it turned out to be the right choice for me."

The quality of the medical school faculty and the School's Midwest setting impressed Gordon. "High-powered people in a low-key place," he says. "All of the clinical teachers I had were brilliant: Harvey Butcher, Gene Bricker, Walter Ballinger, Charlie Parker—people of that quality. I'm sure that's why I stayed at Washington University [in spite of tempting offers from other institutions]; I'm positive of that."

The clinical professor who most influenced Gordon was the surgeon Carl Moyer. "I went into surgery because of Dr. Moyer," he says. "Nobody could make you think harder than Carl Moyer. He was extremely challenging, and he could stimulate in a way, for students especially, that wasn't threatening. You knew you probably weren't going to know the answer anyway, but that he was going to continue to teach you until you learned something new. He was an important figure during our formative years of medical school."

Susie and Gordon were married at the end of Gordon's first year of medical school, and Susie went to work in the anatomy department. There were few married couples in the Class of '61. The grind of medical school and specialty training could trample a marriage. Besides, there was an unwritten rule that if one chose a specialty with a long residency—for example, Gordon's choice, surgery, took a minimum of five years—marriage, considered a diversion, was definitely out of the question.

This was the '50s, after all, a time when residents often lived in the hospital, working 120-hour weeks for $35 a month.

At the end of his second year of residency, Gordon took two years off to do research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. He enjoyed those two years, but perhaps Susie and toddler son Matt enjoyed them even more. Susie says, "Gordon had what was basically a nine-to-five job; it was a nice break."

Their second son, Tim (M.D. '96), was born after they returned to St. Louis and to Gordon's three remaining years of residency.

She says, "Sometimes we didn't see Gordon (awake!) for days on end." (The Philpotts' daughter, Elizabeth, was born, post-residency, in 1973.)

As the children grew, Susie was involved in their schools and activities, organized sports teams (the classic soccer mom), and spent hours in her Ford station wagon loaded with kids.

Later, she became active, and remains so, in civic and community affairs.

At Washington University, in addition to serving as a Women's Society board member for years, Susie helped foreign-born students, through Stix International House, to become proficient in English and learn the ropes of living in America. She has made fast friendships along the way.

Research: A Continuing Thread

At the time of his retirement in 1999, Gordon was the Harry Edison Professor of Surgery and professor of radiology at the School of Medicine, and had served as surgeon-in-chief at Jewish Hospital.

But he had never given up research. Along with colleague Judith M. Connett, research professor of surgery, and other WU scientists, Gordon has conducted extensive research in the diagnosis and treatment of colorectal cancer, and in the early detection of breast cancer. He played a key role in the establishment of the Breast Health Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

An Act to Follow

Gordon has also been active in WU alumni affairs and currently serves on the Alumni Board of Governors as the WU Annual Fund chair.

He had always intended to undertake a second career upon retirement. He says, "It's in the family, that's what my [late] father did [who headed advertising at Ralston Purina for many years]." And this career—management of the Philpott Family Foundation—came looking for him.

The foundation is based on the estate of his mother, Drue Wilson Philpott, who died in 1997, but who had already started an endowed scholarship at the School of Medicine for "a good student in need." Gordon is not sure this is actually his second career, but he says, "Our circumstances were such that I could afford to stay in the academic world. That was very important. We feel very lucky, and I'm sure that's the reason that I feel it's my time to pay back—to work on philanthropy and the Annual Fund."

Four decades later, Cinderella and the Princeps are living very happily ever after. Their children are all married, and four grandchildren live in the St. Louis area. Susie and Gordon are world travelers. A dedicated fly fisherman, who ties his own flies, Gordon has fished (catching and releasing) everywhere from the Amazon to Alaska's testy rivers. (Susie prefers the theater.)

The couple has taken six cycling trips in Europe and plans many more. Gordon has been enthusiastically auditing art appreciation courses on the Hilltop (a seed planted by a young professor named Vince Scully, who taught Yale's required art appreciation course).

He also has taken up cooking. "I'm in heaven!" Susie says. And, oh yes, when Cinderella and the Prince look into each other's eyes, they still know "this is it."

-M.M. Costantin