Alexander Zuckerbraun, Ph.D., M.D. ’55, often finds fresh fruits and vegetables in the back of his pickup truck—in late May two sacks of oranges, a week later a flat of Bing cherries. These anonymous gifts come from this “country doctor’s” patients who are farm workers. Although at age 79 Zuckerbraun calls himself a country doctor, he is really a hybrid: a family practitioner who spent 20 years as a surgeon, a California ranch owner with a Brooklyn accent.
Zuckerbraun took a while getting to medical school. After studying chemistry at the University of Michigan, he was drafted in 1943 and spent three years working on the atomic bomb project at Columbia University, Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Los Alamos, N.M. When he applied to study medicine 14 schools rejected him. He’s not sure why he was turned down; perhaps it was because his stellar chemistry grades contrasted with some dismal grades in other subjects. (He recalls a D in history.) Nonetheless, he says, “I was going to do medicine whatever it took.” Figuring a Ph.D. in chemistry would be good preparation for medicine, he earned his doctorate at the University of Minnesota and applied again. He got into Yale.
Zuckerbraun and his new wife, medical technician Ruth Hitchcock, moved into veterans’ housing—a two-family Quonset hut near the Peabody Museum. Zuckerbraun laughs when he recalls inviting an admired professor, pathologist Averill A. Liebow, M.D., and his wife over for drinks. “They acted like they were very much at home. This was almost like a shack.”
More daunting than living in a near-shack, however, was the transition from chemistry to medicine. He didn’t like anatomy at first, and he suspects he would have failed the first few quizzes at some other medical school. “I wouldn’t have made it without the Yale System. Any other medical school would have thrown me out.” After graduation and surgery residency, Zuckerbraun and his wife settled in Santa Maria, a small town near the central coast of California where they raised seven children.
In the late 1970s Zuckerbraun made another radical lifestyle change. “I decided to be a country doctor, to work out of my office. No appointments. You just come in when you’re sick. I won’t see you in two weeks; I’ll see you when you’re sick.”
He still thinks like a surgeon, always considering both a surgical and a medical remedy for a problem. From his patients, most of them field workers, he has learned to speak fluent Spanish.
Along with his prescriptions comes preaching. “I don’t preach religion. That’s personal. I preach education.” He asks a young man, “Would you like to keep doing what you’re doing for the next 30 years? Bent over picking strawberries?”
Not that Zuckerbraun is averse to picking fruit himself. He and his wife own a 317-acre ranch east of town, where nearly an acre of wine grapes should be ripe for winemaking in a year or two. Zuckerbraun has no plans to retire. “I wanted to be a medical doctor since I was five years old. What am I supposed to do, quit now?”
He hopes to be practicing medicine in 2005, he says, and to join his classmates in celebrating their 50th reunion