Bennett’s ‘Last Lecture’ gives final word on caring physician
Published on Monday, April 26, 2021
By: Gary Pettus, email@example.com
Dr. Kenneth Bennett made his first house calls, in rural east Texas, when he was still a boy.
He traveled with his father, a small-town physician, along remote, unpaved roads to homes lit with coal-oil lamps.
“Whenever I smell kerosene, that memory comes back to me,” said Bennett, professor emeritus, Division of Cardiology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
“My father treated people who had snake bites or infected wounds that needed immediate attention. Sometimes, he had to do surgery on a kitchen table and he would have me hold a flashlight; these houses had no electricity.”
From his late father, Bennett learned not only how to deal with wounds, but also how to deal with people – a lesson he brought home during the fifth annual Last Lecture presentation, Wednesday at UMMC in the Norman C. Nelson Student Union.
Sponsored by the Office of Alumni Affairs and the Student Alumni Representatives (STARs), the Last Lecture has been a mostly annual event at the Medical Center since 2016, an occasion for selected faculty members to hold forth as if it is their last chance to pass on words of wisdom.
Bennett, who officially retired in 2019 and has taught courses in cardiology at UMMC for a total of some four decades, was scheduled to give the Last Lecture in the spring of 2020, until the pandemic shut it down; but his invitation to speak survived COVID-19.
“It’s an honor to be selected by the students,” Bennett said during a pre-lecture interview last week, “which, I believe, is the greatest honor of all.”
Chosen from among a slate of nominees, the Last Lecture honoree is part of a tradition adopted by many other institutions of higher learning since 2007. It began with a Carnegie Mellon University professor, Randy Pausch, a pancreatic cancer patient. Aware of his terminal diagnosis, Pausch delivered the original Last Lecture, offering insights transformed into a best-selling book.
At UMMC, Tori Wilson is among the dozen or so students who served on the Last Lecture committee and chose the three candidates put up for a vote; 316 learners participated in the selection, said Patrick Cooper, alumni engagement associate in the Office of Alumni Affairs.
“Dr. Bennett is a Medical Center giant,” said Wilson, who will do her obstetrics-gynecology residency at UMMC after graduating in May from the School of Medicine. “Everyone has a Dr. Bennett story. He can tell you more about someone’s heart by using his bare hands than many people can tell you using a stethoscope. He can just look at a patient and tell you what’s wrong.
“For a Last Lecturer, you want someone who has left a large impact on the university and on the community; Dr. Bennett has done that.”
In that respect, he takes after his father, Dr. Noel Thomas Bennett, who left his own mark on the community of San Augustine, Texas; there, he and his wife Lydia brought up six children on the family farm.
“He was the caring physician,” Bennett said, a child of the 1930’s and ’40’s, and of the Great Depression. “It was obvious in the way he dealt with people.
“These were country folk he treated. Many had injuries from working on their farms, such as lacerations on the leg that needed to be lanced. Medicine in those days was primitive compared to now,” said Bennett, who turns 88 this year. “Where we lived, a paved road was a luxury.”
His father never encouraged him to become a physician – not with words. “But I did spend a lot of time with him on his house calls,” Bennett said. “It’s kind of like watching your father build a house. I guess it gets in your blood.”
So, after a stint in the U.S. Navy, which he had joined during the Korean War, Bennett signed up for medical school. “I decided then I would try to become a doctor,” he said. “I never had an epiphany like Paul on the Road to Damascus. I’ve always thought it’s probably in your DNA.”
In the state where his parents were born, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Centenary College of Louisiana, in Shreveport, then enrolled in the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, graduating in 1962. He began his internal medicine residency at what is now the LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport and finished it at UMMC, later receiving board certifications in internal medicine and cardiovascular disease.
At UMMC, Bennett was acknowledged many times for his talent as a teacher. He was one of six faculty members to receive, in 2020, a Trailblazer Teaching Award, granted by the Office of Medical Education in recognition of “effective educators of future physicians.”
It was the latest of many honors distinguishing his record, including Teacher of the Year in 2007 and, in the Division of Cardiovascular Diseases, the 2017 Faculty Member of the Year.
While Bennett also worked in private practice for several years, he began his first run as a teacher at the Medical Center in 1969, the year he finished his cardiology fellowship at UMMC.
“One thing I’ve said to students is, ‘You have to learn to observe,’” he said. In practicing the art of medicine, his models are Sir William Osler, a founding father of Johns Hopkins Hospital; the ancient Greek, Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine; and Bennett’s own father.
More than 70 years ago, Dr. Noel Bennett performed an emergency appendectomy on his teenage son. The patient suffered from “no fear of the operation, no anxiety,” Bennett told his audience in the Student Union and the one watching online.
It was the trust of a patient, not only in his father, but also in his doctor. It’s the kind of trust built, in part, on the physician’s “individual acts of kindness and charity that distinguish our guild,” Bennett said.
Dr. Gustavus Murray distinguished it as well. Near the end of the 19th century, artist Sir Luke Fildes created a painting paying homage to Murray and the physician’s devotion to Fildes’ ailing son. For his Last Lecture audience, Bennett projected onto a screen an image of "The Doctor."
It’s an interior scene; in their cottage of deep shadows, two distraught parents wait in the background by a window; light is breaking in with the dawn.
The father’s eyes are on the doctor, who is alert and thoughtful, looking down on a sleeping child stretched across two chairs; the faces of the doctor and the child are lit by what must be a kerosene or coal-oil lamp.
“This is the spirit of medicine,” Bennett said.
THE LAST LECTURE
2016 – Dr. Dan Jones (School of Medicine)
2017 – Dr. Brad Ingram (School of Medicine)
2018 – Dr. Charles Ramsey (School of Dentistry)
2019 – Dr. Loretta Jackson-Williams (School of Medicine)
2021 – Dr. Kenneth Bennett (School of Medicine)