Legendary cardiologist, scientist, researcher and author, Eric Topol, on a traumatic childhood and the challenges of being a late developer. Part one of a revealing interview…
Eric Topol is a renowned American cardiologist, scientist and author of three bestseller books on the future of medicine. He is the founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute and a professor of Molecular Medicine.
As a researcher, he has published over 1,200 peer-reviewed articles, with more than 285,000 citations, elected to the National Academy of Medicine, and is one of the top 10 most cited researchers in medicine. His principal scientific focus has been on the genomic and digital tools to individualize medicine.
What did you want to be when you were a child?
Back then, I thought becoming a basketball player was a possibility. But I was very uncertain about what I was going to do when I went to college. I was always curious to understand why poor health seemed to run in my family so I got excited by genetics at the University of Virginia. For a while my plan was a career in genetics but that changed when I worked night shifts in the hospital there as a respiratory technician. This was in the old days of really primitive ventilators but seeing these very sick patients at death’s door in the intensive care unit get supported and resurrected blew me away. That Lazarus effect stimulated me to go into medicine. So a part-time college job changed my planned career path.
What’s the greatest challenge you’ve overcome?
Well, I’ve had no shortage of challenges. When I was a kid in third grade, I had a terrible speech impediment. I had this awful lisp and I had to learn to speak correctly. I remember going to my speech therapist at school, Mrs Quinn, and my lisp was so bad I couldn’t even pronounce her name. So learning to overcome that was a huge challenge. I was laughed at by my fellow students throughout school so it was really tough.
I was also very young when I went to college. I had just finished high school when I was 15 and I went off to UVA with a complete lack of knowledge of the world and so I was an outcast. I really was an outlier and had to make an enormous effort to overcome these social barriers that were a huge challenge,
How long were you being treated for the lisp?
It took a couple of years to gradually break it so it was a really tough time. But here’s another thing. I didn’t learn to talk until I was three and a half. I couldn’t say a single word, I just grunted. My parents told me this story that they thought I was deaf or mentally disabled. They kept taking me to doctors because all I could do was make this strange grunting noise but no-one could find anything wrong with me. Who knows, perhaps that had something to do with my later speech impediment. Let’s just say my childhood wasn’t exactly normal.
Did they eventually find why you weren’t able to talk?
No, I was just a very late developer. I remember so distinctly my grandmother coming to visit and because it was rainy she put her umbrella in the bathtub. She went to leave without her umbrella and so I started grunting and tugging on her arm and pulled her to the bath where the umbrella was and my mother screamed, ‘Oh, he’s not mentally disabled!’ I’ll never forget it. I could understand perfectly but I just couldn’t say anything. Thankfully I eventually started speaking in sentences not long after I learnt to talk. But the umbrella in the bathtub was one of the index memories of my life.
Who’s been the biggest influence on your career?
The person who had the biggest impact on me was Kanu Chatterjee, my mentor at the University of California, where I did my medical training. During my time there I became particularly interested in diabetes and endocrinology because my father had it and suffered every possible complication, going blind at the age of 49. So I wanted to dedicate my efforts to that but Kanu persuaded me to go into cardiology. He was a model physician not just in terms of his bedside manner and unparalleled exam skills but he took the time to take me under his wing and have deep conversations with me. He inspired me like no one ever had before and made such an impact on my career and life.
Years after his death from pancreatic cancer, his wife sent me a note that he’d written to me. She found it in one of his old notepads. When it arrived in the mail unannounced, I just couldn’t believe it. It was a note about how glad he was that I had followed his inspiration. It meant so much to me that he’d taken the trouble to write it before he died and that it somehow reached me years later. I can’t tell you how much it made me sob.
Who do you most admire?
It’s impossible to pick just one. I’m so interested in artificial intelligence because I think it can have a transformative effect on medicine. So I highly respect the work of Fei-Fei Lee who is at Stanford. She’s one of the people I really admire. There are so many others in the field of artificial intelligence who are extraordinary people, brilliant people, people who stand up for the truth and try to do the right thing.
I’ve also recently met some exceptionally brilliant scientists through Twitter. I became friends with Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale who I have immense respect for and several other scientists who I first met during the pandemic but have become good friends.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I had a physician at Rochester medical school, Arthur Moss, who was a cardiologist too. He told me that the key to his success was reading. And reading a lot. In fact, when I did my rotation with him, we started in the library every day. We would read for at least 45 minutes before we went on our rounds. It’s something I continued throughout the rest of my life. Every day I start reading and again in the evening. So that one piece of simple advice that had a major impact on me. Reading is the best way of not just keeping up, but keeping ahead.
What advice would you give to someone starting out on a career in medicine?
Well, they’re very lucky. I wish I could trade places because this is the most exciting time to be coming into medicine. I frequently talk with young people who are at various different levels and I have so much advice. I always say, ‘Remember your audience is not the people in your microcosm, it’s the public at large.’ Also, think about things that are impactful – avoid taking little baby steps and try to do big things. But most importantly, tell it like it is and don’t accept dogma. Challenge dogma as much as you can and put it to the acid test. Also, when you find something, report it. And if you believe in something, stay with it. See it through. These are all important things that don’t get taught in medical school. Things that I had to learn for myself over the years, so I’m keen to pass them on. I told you I have a lot of advice to give!
Part two of our exclusive interview, where Eric talks about the future of AI and medicine, receiving death threats and the pain of losing everything in a bitter legal dispute can be read here