CHICAGO – As a young man new to the United States, Ivor Benjamin attended Hunter College simply because it was close to where he lived.
The school proved to be the perfect launching pad for his career in science, as it had been for other pioneers and Nobel laureates. Benjamin was introduced to people and opportunities that led him to his current posts as director of the Cardiovascular Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin and president of the American Heart Association.
While at Hunter, he also was introduced to the school's motto, "Mihi cura futuri," which is Latin for "the care of the future is mine."
"This phrase embodies so much of what I believe," Benjamin said Sunday during the Conner Presidential Address at Scientific Sessions, the AHA's flagship scientific meeting. "It is empowering. It carries the weight of responsibility. And it's infused with that most precious commodity for everyone in our profession – the hope that we can make a difference.
"However, because of my experience as a longtime American Heart Association volunteer and the organization's current president, I suggest a slight twist on this phrase that I consider relevant: 'The care of the future is ours.' And by 'ours,' I mean you, me and the AHA."
Benjamin's address was titled "The Care of the Future," and offered myriad opportunities on how that can be done, including mentoring and advocating for systemic changes.
"We can make a difference – in large and small ways – when we prioritize caring for the future," he said.
Benjamin also shared details of his journey from the South American nation of Guyana to this stage. It's a tale that begins two generations before his, with the story of his grandmother's brother, James Henry Murrell.
Murrell left Guyana for schooling in the United States, then went to Scotland and earned a medical degree in 1922. He practiced in the West African nation Ghana, where he is believed to have performed the first transfusion in the region.
"Although I never met Great-Uncle James, he was a touchstone throughout my childhood," said Benjamin, whose full name of Ivor James Emmanuel Benjamin includes an homage to Murrell.
"When I brought home good grades, my mother would lovingly say, 'Maybe one day, Ivor, you'll be just like your Great-Uncle James.' She never pushed me toward medicine, but she did want me to think about finding ways to make a difference in the world."
Benjamin's family moved to New York shortly after he finished high school. After starting at Hunter, he discovered a summer program at Weill Cornell Medicine.
"After all those years of hearing about Great-Uncle James, it was as if he was tapping on my shoulder and saying, 'Welcome. This is where you belong,'" he said.
Benjamin described the mentors who guided his career path, a group that ranged from former AHA president Dr. Bernadine Healy (with whom he had his first medical paper published) to Dr. Levi Watkins, who along with Dr. Vivien Thomas became the first surgeon to successfully implant an automatic defibrillator in a human. Also a civil rights activist, Watkins helped steer Benjamin to what is now known as The Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Having benefited from so much guidance, Benjamin is proud to be a mentor himself.
"I have mentored African-American men and African-American women, Hispanics-slash-Latinos, Asians and Caucasians, rich, poor and in-between and a variety of ages, religions and sexual orientations," he said. "These dozens of undergraduates share only one common trait – 100 percent have gotten into medical school or professional school."
Benjamin is especially concerned about the plight of African-Americans seeking careers in science and medicine, noting a drop in medical school applications in the years from 1978 (the year he applied) to 2014.
"Even though the U.S. population has grown, and more African-American men are graduating from college, fewer see themselves as medical school material," he said.
He noted that the AHA recently launched an initiative aimed at helping underrepresented minorities who are majoring in science, technology, engineering and math. He touted other new opportunities aimed at helping young researchers and those in need of mentors.
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