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Medicine man and more


Ken Reed knows that doctors can become so focused on medicine that they don’t take time for much else. But he has made sure that this isn’t true of him, and he said he’s a better professional and family man as a result.

Reed, dean of Des Moines University’s dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine and a professor of surgery, lives his life partly by the words of William Osler, who was one of the founders of the Johns Hopkins Medical School in the 1890s.

“Osler had many great sayings, and one of his greatest pieces of advice that he gave medical students was to get a hobby and ride it hard, and don’t let medicine consume you. I took that to heart, because it’s absolutely true,” Reed said.

Reed has developed a wide range of pastimes over the years. He has his “away- from-medicine hobbies,” which include listening to jazz, fly fishing and studying the life and works of Walt Whitman, and on the medical front, he has devoted a significant amount of time to collecting medical instruments and textbooks from the Civil War period. Pursuing those hobbies helps him maintain a balanced life, which can be a challenge for people in the medical field, he said.

“Medicine has a tendency to narrow people’s minds,” Reed said. “It’s such an intense amount of training that you devote all your waking hours to nothing but medicine.

At the end of 15 years of training, they (the medical school) spit you out and say, ‘Hey, you’re a surgical oncologist, but wait a minute, you don’t know anything about the rest of the world.’”

Of all his interests, Reed said, his passion for Walt Whitman has consumed the most time over the years. The interest arose from a chance meeting at an antique book sale in Ohio, when an old stamped envelope caught his eye. When he asked how much it was to buy the stamp, the dealer said $250. Reed asked why the price was so steep, and the dealer showed him the name on the return envelope: Walt Whitman.

“He started telling me about Walt Whitman’s life, and he got me fascinated,” Reed said. “I went home and read everything I could about Walt Whitman and I called the guy up, and he offered to sell me a small collection of some of Whitman’s books and letters, and that’s how it all started.”

Reed said he enjoys the “fun of the chase” of trying to decode Whitman the person and the poet.

“The depth of his poetry is so deep that people are still interpreting it today and coming up with new ideas of what he meant,” he said. “Any time a new letter or a new manuscript becomes available, it opens another little door into Whitman’s mind.”

Reed does not consider himself a Whitman scholar, but this year, he will speak at two conferences commemorating the 150th anniversary of the release of Whitman’s first edition of “Leaves of Grass.”

Reed, who served in the U.S. Army for 20 years and completed his surgical training at the Brook Army Medical Center in Texas, developed an interest in Civil War medicine when he learned how much influence the war had on the development of American medicine.

Over the years, he has built a collection of early medical textbooks, some dating back to 1813, and others leading up to and following the Civil War. Among his most prized items representative of Civil War medicine are two doctor’s kits that he bought at an auction.

“These kits are extremely scarce,” he said. “The likelihood of something like that ever coming along again is virtually zero. You cannot find them today because they are all in museums.”

Reed already shares his books and some of his other medical history collection with faculty and students, and he intends to donate his books to the university’s rare book collection some day.

“The new medical books today come and go, but some of the historical stuff never gets outdated,” he said. “It’s interesting because you need to know the past if you’re going to work in the future.”

Reed realizes that his students might not have an interest right now in medical history, but he hopes he can inspire them to want to learn more about the subject or expand their knowledge base in other ways.

“Balance is the key for anybody, not just doctors,” Reed said. “Family is the most important thing in my life, but I think I’m a better person for my family because I’m able to do these things to refocus and try to share as much of it as I can with my kids and grandkids.”

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