198pp. 32 halftones 6 x 9 © 2011
ISBN 978-0-9830807-0-1 Published January, 2011 Paper: $24.50

“We have grown too disenchanted with our doctors and our doctoring to ignore the story of my father’s medicine.” So begins historian Paul Stepansky in a book that is for everyone who has ever had a doctor they trusted and admired, perhaps even loved. But The Last Family Doctor is also a book for everyone who has ever had a doctor they found disappointing, perhaps even hurtful.

Cover: The Last Family Doctor

William Stepansky, the subject of this beautifully penned tribute, was a wise and humane general physician, a “GP” who embodied everything that was right about “modern medicine” in the decades following World War II. A man of infinite compassion and deep commitment to his craft and calling, he was the complete physician, the kind of doctor one-time patients liked to claim as their personal physician long after they had stopped seeing him. Beginning in 1953, he provided all that scientific medicine had to offer to the small rural communities he served in eastern Pennsylvania. And he did so with an embracing humanity, an ability to hold and contain the pain, suffering, and anxious concern of others, that is integral to the all but lost art of medicine.

The Last Family Doctor recounts the remarkable odyssey that led William Stepansky to his career in medicine. It begins in the village of Stavishche in the Kiev region of the Ukraine, where the future doctor’s parents fled the Pogroms that followed World War I. It moves on to the Rumanian village of Kishinev, where William Stepansky was born in 1922, thence to Bucharest, the French port of Le Havre, Boston Harbor, and the Italian-Jewish enclave of South Philadelphia, where he was raised and educated. The “making of a doctor,” as documented here, traverses topics far removed from the life experience of contemporary physicians: intensive violin studies, pharmacy training, army engineering training, battlefield surgery in France and Germany, laboratory work in Pilzen, Czechoslovakia, and admission to Jefferson Medical College in 1947, the latter a result of extraordinary perseverance in which the violin, strange as it sounds, played a part. Precious family and wartime photos lend vividness to William Stepansky’s memorable story.

But The Last Family Doctor is not only a memoir. It is a unique window into understanding what has happened to primary care medicine in America over the past six decades. In telling his father’s compelling story, Paul Stepansky tells the story of an entire generation of gifted generalists who trained during and shortly after World War II and practiced small-community medicine in the decades after the war. He concludes with a measured assessment of what we have gained, but also what we have lost, in the death of the postwar GP who cared for individuals and their families from birth to death. In so doing, he challenges us to reflect anew on what we need, what we want, and what we can reasonably expect, from our physicians.

The first to take up the challenge is the author’s brother, David Stepansky, an internist who practices general adult medicine in the very communities served by his father a half century ago. His thoughtful Afterword, which compares his father’s medicine with the medicine he practices today, rounds out the compelling story of a quiet hero who in important ways “represents the doctor we all deserve” (Daniel Carlat, M.D.).

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