Jerome Levy: 2010 Outstanding Graduate in University College in Arts & Sciences

Surgeon cultivates a lifelong passion for learning — and doing

When Jerome Levy, MD, decided to build a second home in the Idaho mountains, he knew he wanted to take part in the construction.

“I read a book on how to wire a house, and I knew a little bit about electricity,” says Levy, now emeritus professor of surgery. “I took two weeks off and worked 14 hours a day. It was pretty simple, really, running wires from here to there.”

Whether it’s wiring a home or performing immediate breast reconstruction during a mastectomy (and becoming one of the city’s first surgeons to do so), there’s not much Levy, 75, who graduates May 21 with a Master of Liberal Arts degree from University College in Arts & Sciences, isn’t interested in knowing — and doing.

That’s why Levy, a longtime art collector with his wife, Judith, took a class on early Renaissance art history at University College six years ago — for credit.

“People asked, ‘Why not audit?’” says Levy, who at the time wasn’t planning to earn a degree. “But I knew if I audited the class and got busy, I wouldn’t do the work. I wanted to do all the work everyone else was doing to see if I could do it, too.”

One class led to another, and then to a thesis on Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s statue of David, and then eventually to a Master of Liberal Arts for the longtime medical scientist.

“In conversation, in classroom and in academic work, Jerry showed an innate curiosity and unbridled enthusiasm for learning,” says William E. Wallace, PhD, the Barbara Murphy Bryant Distinguished Professor of Art History in Arts & Sciences and Levy’s thesis adviser. “What’s particularly impressive is that he can make such a significant shift of field — a respected medical doctor to an accomplished art historian.”

Though Levy is a bit older than most of his classmates, Wallace says he fit in nicely and provided a unique perspective in class, having seen many of the works under discussion in person during trips to Italy.

“Levy is a perfect example of how education can continue through midlife in a positive and fulfilling way,” Wallace says.

Levy says he plans to walk at Commencement to show his six children (three of whom are WUSTL alums) and nine grandchildren the importance of education throughout one’s life.

Levy wasn’t always the voice of experience in his classes. Levy, who grew up in St. Louis, skipped third grade. He talked his way out of the second half of ninth grade after transferring to University City High School. After graduating in three years from Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in Arts & Sciences in 1953, Levy started medical school at WUSTL at age 19.

Neither of Levy’s parents went to college, but both placed a high value on education.

“When I was in my last year of high school, I wanted to delay going to college to try out for professional baseball,” Levy says. “My mom looked at all 5’6’’ of me and said ‘First, you go to college.’”

Levy combined his interest in science, people and working with his hands to pursue a specialty in surgery. As a faculty member at the School of Medicine throughout his career, Levy’s passion for learning newer, better methods kept him on the forefront of medicine. In 1964, Levy created and patented an item to assist colleagues with retinal surgery. In 1990, Levy also became one of the first surgeons at Barnes-Jewish Hospital to use laparoscopic surgery to remove gallbladders.

Even as a busy professor, Levy found time to cultivate interests outside medicine, sneaking away to the Danforth Campus to attend lectures and programs.

Levy also has served on numerous boards, including the Ladue Board of Education, Forsyth School Board, the Temple Israel Board and the Kemper Art Museum Gallery Committee.

Levy plans to continue taking classes after graduation.

“I won’t quit just because I have a degree,” Levy says. “There’s still much more to learn.”