Franklyn Prendergast, MD, PhD, was a keynote speaker at the Sept. 11, 2021 commencement of the Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

Prendergast was an emeritus professor of biochemistry, molecular biology, and pharmacology at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science. He held many leadership roles throughout his storied career until his retirement in 2014.

Anthony Fauci, MD, then-director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to the president, was also a keynote speaker. His remarks are available along with the footage of the full virtual ceremony.

Franklyn Prendergast 2021 Commencement Address

Prendergast commencement address
View the commencement address

Dean Meyer, President and CEO of Mayo Clinic, Gianricho Farrugia, Dean Ekker. At the outset, I acknowledge my profound appreciation and thanks for the honor being conferred in me by this, my own parent institution.

I must tell you, I was really surprised—and actually stunned—then spent several hours after receiving Dr. Meyer’s letter reflecting on whether all those involved in making the decision had simply lost their morals. They had gone nuts. My acceptance of the offer, however, was then, and remains, predicated on the assumption, maybe even the presumption, that there will be many other recipients from Mayo in the future because, lordy lordy, there already are—and in the future there will be many others—even more deserving candidates.

My time for comments is short, and I’ll go off script for a moment and say, I’m given to outbursts that are consequence of my being a Jamaican, and I’m given to pseudo-Tourettes syndrome, I’m afraid. So if I start doing strange things, please understand. I also have learned through painful experience in the past that brevity and coherence of message are paramount in talks such as this. So my first responsibility is to say thanks to some key people in my life who are seminal in my own career at Mayo.

It’s impossible to name them all. The number is so large. First is my partner in life, my wife Debbra, and my children Sean and Kathryn, my family, whose genuine, continual and substantial affection over the last almost 40 years in aggregate afforded me the time and familial equanimity that enabled everything I did at Mayo.

Second, and especially during the years of great effort, the assistance of two people who were remarkable, my personal assistant of almost 30 years, Mrs. Jill Kappers, and Michael Phenning, the latter, the truly outstanding administrator for the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center for 11 continuous, often very challenging years.

Third, I need to say how very much I owe to my clinical research and administrative mentors during my time in the clinic at Mayo. Seminal amounts, these being Ed Rosenow, John Blinks, my PhD advisor, Ken Mann, Joe Szurszewski, Richard Weinshilboum, Joe Rodarte, Bob Waller, Bob Hattery, Scott Kaufmann—principles among the legion of individuals who, often without really recognizing their actual role as mentors, gave freely of their knowledge, time and experience to be my teachers.

Now understand that there are many others, and one of the great things about Mayo has been the remarkable friendship and basically ease with which all my colleagues over those many years have borne me up when the chips were down, celebrated with me when successes came, and generally allowed me to be part of their lives through sharing and caring. One of my friends, Scott Kaufman, is principal among this selected cohort.

Now let me tell you a little bit about my own time at Mayo. I arrived at Mayo Clinic on Monday afternoon, July 5th, 1971. I was coming from Oxford University with its gargoyles and its wonderful cement or other stone structures—dreaming spires, it’s called the city of dreaming spires—came over a hill and down into Rochester, Minnesota. I was greeted by a plainly Freudian symbol disguised, I believe ingenuously, as a giant corn cob. I wondered where the “H E two sticks” I was.

The next morning, I registered at graduate school. Margaret Thompson was there. I was asked if I had my stethoscope as part of my greeting, and then told that I was late for rounds that morning, and that I would be on call that Tuesday night because I had been late getting through graduate school. And that was in total my introduction to Mayo Clinic. I don’t know if you call that inauspicious, but it certainly was weird.

It took me no more than two weeks, however, to realize that I was in a uniquely rich medical world, one very much my liking, pregnant with scientific possibilities, beautiful medicine, and true care for the patient.

Mayo has created its own culture over time, demanding fealty to the patient first and foremost. But in that regard, they had to solve innumerable real world problems of inadequate tools or knowledge and understanding in every sphere and discipline of medicine. This required a robust clinical practice to support inquiry, and each staff member was open to participate to the extent allowed by their talent and proclivities. Over the next several decades from the clinic’s inception, the results were a stunning array of research achievements that every one of you in the audience should read about.

It wasn’t just Kendall and Hench and Mattox and their Nobel Prize or even Luis Alvarez. Names well recognized from their Nobel Prizes, but an army of others you’ve probably never heard about like Hugh Butt, Charlie Code, Earl Wood, David Albert, [John] Shepherd, […]—and these are just a few, all of whom contributed remarkable to the pantheon of medical science.

It was especially a golden period of basic physiology and by extension, translational pathophysiology. Mayo had a robust translational science program—which you’ve heard about earlier from Fred Meyer, the executive dean—long before the phrase became popularized as though the discipline was somehow new and unique. This had been Mayo’s world for a very long time.

Mayo Clinic had a robust and productive, albeit somewhat informal graduate research and education program at that time. But one dependent entirely for its formal accreditation on the University of Minnesota.

Decade of the seventies, especially when I arrived here, brought the long overdue administrative changes that yielded independent accreditation and formalization of scientific and educational programs, creation of new departments, hiring of dedicated scientists and educators, realization of the rudiments of a more traditional graduate school and also the establishment of the Mayo Medical School.

We are all—all of you in the audience, all of you graduates—now the beneficiaries of the luminaries who conceived and drove the processes, sometimes against formidable odds. But finally, the full support of board of Goner and board of trustees created the graduate school.

In my view, Mayo has not told its story at all well. There are many who believe that this is not an academic institution and, indeed, this has yielded problems for the institution. This is a deficit that your generation would do well to remedy, once and for all. And this commencement is a start in that regard.

So what exists today? I retired from Mayo in December of 2014, but I have had the opportunity, especially this past week, to review the recent achievements of this school, and they have been stunning. The numerical growth, obvious eclecticism, the diversity of academic programs and of the student body, student achievement academically—that means you, the graduates—and in terms of public service, as illustrated by the careers of individuals like Dr. Hartono and Donahue.

These are all exemplary, but they are not unique. This is true for many of the graduates of the graduate school. Years ago, as so many of us at Mayo dreamt and worked as seriously towards attainments of this ilk, I, for one, had no idea that we would so soon be where we are.

Further, the expansion to Mayo Clinic sites of the educational programs in Jacksonville and Scottsdale is, for me, truly unbelievable and nothing that I foresaw as even possible, let alone likely. But somebody did, and judging from the exciting plans that I have learned of over the last few days, the best may yet be to come.

Kudos. Absolute kudos, ladies and gentlemen, to Dean Ekker and especially also to Dean Meyer—all of your participants in the forecasted realization of a grand ambition. Dean Ekker certainly has the ability, vision, and especially the indefatigable work ethic and passion to lead the requisite teams and the overall effort.

I’m particularly thrilled by the wisdom and perspicacity of my friend and personal neurosurgeon, Dr. Fred Meyer, who apparently led the charge to change a name from the Mayo graduate to the proper title, the Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

Maybe only a few will understand why accord so much significance to this action. But, for me, it was a seminal change signifying a major institutional identification and recognition, and I compliment the board of government and board of trustees to have enabled that critical change.

Some insiders will understand why this emphasis is so important, but there are many in the outside community who do not believe that this is an academic program at Mayo Clinic. But when you sum over all the different schools that comprise the Mayo College of Medicine, or even if we were to stop the process now and declare success, no one could possibly complain.

But there is more that I personally would like to see happen. Yes, I am greedy and seldom completely satisfied. There are eight suggestions, each of which I propose merits full discussion as means of extending the remarkable success of the male graduate school to date.

I would like to see this graduate school as the foremost graduate school in biomedical sciences in the country. It won’t be the biggest numerically, but by golly it’s going to be the best. I would like to see a more fully integration between students and faculty of the graduate school into the clinical practice. I’m currently involved with some nine entrepreneurial enterprises outside of Mayo, and there is, no question, there is a veritable cornucopia of opportunities to engage students in career opportunities as are well outside the academic realm.

These all have possibilities for major contributions to patient care, for example, to the treatment of COVID—actual treatment. And it would do well for the greatest students to be cognizant of these opportunities, because they will be participants inevitably, and with reciprocal benefit to the school and to the clinical programs broadly around the world—and not just to Mayo.

To illustrate, this week I learned of the intent at Mayo to build a clinical program around gene editing. Well, what better place to do this than Mayo. Fortuitously, or better yet, but this was by active actual design. But in doing so, we’ll take advantage of the expertise of one of the earliest and most recognized scientists in the field. Now that’s what I call intelligent clinical planning.

Two, I’d like to see an enhancement with the academic experience for graduate students by greater cross-disciplinary preceptorial training. Now, I became familiar with the wonderful benefits of preceptorial training through my experience, especially at Oxford University. What that means is individual guidance, with individual tutors—and especially for a PhD program, there’s great benefit. And by the way, in any of these subjects, I’m more than happy to engage in a discussion.

Third, I would like to see more engagement with international students, from persistently underprivileged national and international populations. I have always held the view that Mayo’s excellence needs to be communicated—not to be duplicated, because that could be difficult—but certainly emulated in terms of patient care. And I think we have a responsibility as an institution to help those who are significantly less fortunate than we are.

Fourth, I’d like to see all curricula emphasizing not just schooling, but education. This may seem subtle, but there is a difference, a profound difference, and I think education should be objective for everyone.

I can illustrate very simply, when you teach protein chemistry, do you really teach how you actually measure the concentration of a protein? Does that make any sense? Well, to those of you who are engaged, if you really think about it, it’s actually a fairly profound issue.

I used to start my protein chemistry course by spending the first two or three hours teaching how to measure protein concentration. It ain’t simple.

Continue to teach physiology, and this is a pet peeve. Physiology is not integrated biology, not yet anyway. And with all the talk of AI, it’ll be a long time coming. And then the truth is, integrated biology will not be a worthy replacement, etymologically or actually, for physiology and Mayo’s reputation in physiology, in human physiology, is perhaps almost unmatched.

Six: Broaden student exposure to remarkable, diverse array of career opportunities open to them. I have never seen a time, and particularly from the lessons learned through the pandemic, the need for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary engagement is absolutely obvious, just as Fauci said earlier in his talk. And Mayo can inculcate and engender such training, and it would do well, in fact, for the institution to adopt a formal attitude with regard to such interdisciplinary training.

So these are all suggestions, but I want to end, perhaps on a note that will be a little controversial. Fundamentally, we need to encourage profound biomedical problems as a task for this institution and for the graduate school.

There are many ways to do this. I would like, for example, to see Manhattan projects on subjects of vital importance, such as immunosenescence, and meaningful communication to the public as to why this is important and by no means esoteric.

Immune memory: What does that mean, and is it significant for the current COVID explosion? My answer is definitively yes. We have no idea what the persistence of immune protection is going to be, either from vaccinations or disease.

But in closing, I want to illustrate two gentle aphorisms for your consideration. It’s a phrase from an Indian philosopher that is an admonition to the institution, and to the graduate program: that respect for tradition is one thing, but slavish adherence to tradition quite another.

Sit and think about that for a moment and understand its significance. It isn’t that tradition isn’t vital, and especially at an institution like this, tradition is key. But there comes the time when we have to examine the precepts and meaning of a particular tradition or set of traditions, and be willing to change them boldly in the face of new realities.

And then finally, the role of dissent in the institution—the role of opinions that differ from where we have been or are, to inculcate and engender the habit of critical analysis and review, and teach the art of genuinely solicitous and respectful commentary back to the institution. Be involved.

And I’m speaking especially to the new graduates, to understand your role and responsibility, not just societally, but to this remarkable institution of which I’m immensely proud and particularly proud in watching how it has responded to the COVID epidemic with sincere care and solicitude for the staff and for the public, and to be leaders in this regard in all ways, including in research and education.

What I hope is that we’ll act as beacons for accurate communication, to try to avoid the ravages of miscommunication that have been let loose on the society at large. These are your responsibility graduates. You have been well-trained in this regard. Now. Please engage and use it.

Thank you so much for this honor and the experience. Thank you.