Dr. F. Douglas Scutchfield, a professor in the University of Kentucky’s College of Medicine and its College of Public Health, is the 27th recipient of the UK Libraries Medallion for Intellectual Achievement. He joins a list of distinguished predecessors that includes the late historian Thomas D. Clark, Gov. Bert T. Combs, MacArthur “Genius”Award winner Guy Davenport and poet, novelist and essayist Wendell Berry.
Scutchfield received the prestigious award last week from UK president Eli Capilouto, who noted that their academic paths had crossed at three different universities.
Longtime viewers of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky” program that I formerly hosted may recall shows when Scutchfield was a guest. In the early years when I was desperate for someone to talk about the politics of health care, he was my man. Although a few of my reporter friends grumped that he wasn’t a journalist, I defended him as an accomplished writer who has served on the board of many journals and authored over 200 medical papers and edited several books.
A man of parts, as the old saying about multi-talented folks goes, Scutchfield, known to friends as “Scutch,” was born in Wheelwright in East Kentucky, graduated with distinction from Eastern Kentucky University, and was in the third graduating class of UK’s medical school.
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After post-graduate medical education at Northwestern University and UK, he left UK to found first the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alabama and then the Graduate School of Public Health at San Diego State University. Returning to UK in 1997, he became the founding director of the UK College of Public Health.
In recent years, a visitor to the Boone faculty restaurant might find “Dr. Scutch” lunching with an assortment of professors in disciplines outside of medicine, such as economist Ken Troske, music professor Everett McCorvey, historians Jeremy Popkin and John Thelin. The reason became clear in Scutchfield’s remarks at the library presentation. Entitled “The Power of Academic Integration,” he discussed the nexus of science and the humanities.
With a quote from historian Shelby Foote characterizing a university as “a group of buildings gathered around a library,” he said he had become a deep believer “in the connectedness of academic life.” Noting the traditional heavy focus on research and grants, sometimes at the expense of teaching, he said “we cannot work in silos, they must be bridged.”
“In my own discipline of public health we are aware that the majority of health status predictors are social determinants of health; that education, jobs, socio-economic status, racial equality, housing and the built environment are the most powerful predictors of health status of communities.” But an awareness of these social determinants does not necessarily engage the practice of medicine with these other issues, he said.
Hearing these remarks, I was reminded of the struggle to overcome these challenges back in the day when I was a weekly editor in a rural county seat in Western Kentucky. In that segregated community, the voices for change were few; progress was not a goal for all.
Then later, while I campaigned for better oral heath in Appalachia and for more dental pediatricians, my friend Scutchfield surprised me with a large packet containing reports from Harvard asserting that the most important factor for improving public health is better education.
I then realized this champion of public health — a former president of the American College of Preventive Medicine, winner of many high awards in his profession — was telling me that it is OK to call for more dentists in Appalachia, but my first cause, improved education, is the priority path to a better life..
Last week, as I was leaving the W.T. Young Library, a student sold me a copy of a book on the letters of Thomas Merton, perhaps the most influential Catholic writer of the last century. The book was edited by Scutchfield, with a colleague Paul Evans Holbrook.
On the way out, I was told that Scutchfield, not a Catholic, will teach an honors course this fall on the Trappist monk of Gethsemani, Thomas Merton, the most influential American Catholic author of the last century.
Al Smith, Lexington, is a former chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission and founding host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky.”