Homo Celebrans — Man: the only animal that celebrates its accomplishments

shutterstock_153099458-Geoffrey Kuchera-fireworks
Image from Shutterstock, copyright Geoffrey Kuchera

What distinguishes man from other creatures? Certainly the religious and philosophical implications of that question have created terabytes of information and many of the world’s religions. The British Blue Tit in England learns and remembers that shiny caps on milk bottles can be punctured with its beak to yield a rich, fatty meal. Your pet remembers many events and behaviors, although it does not have a great internal clock for celebrating its birthday, or its winning of the Westminster Kennel Club Best in Show. Homo sapiens remembers and also has internal and external clocks for marking and recalling events: the equinox, birthdays, and the important events in one’s family and one’s career.

At Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston members of the dermatology and skin biology community gathered on December 10, 2014 to celebrate Howard Baden’s long life and career in science and dermatology. Yes, scientists celebrate with food, libation, toasts and speeches. Not too different from the party when a sports team wins the silver cup. However, in a wonderfully masochistic fashion, scientists also celebrate careers in science by talking about more science. Why do they do that? The cynical will say it is just the excuse for a party, and for gathering the scientific tribe.

I am more optimistic; I think the occasion gives all present, scientists of all ages and degrees of sophistication, the opportunity to think about how science and the knowledge it produces and its application to humans has advanced. This is not the equivalent of a historic car rally and bringing out the Stanley Steamers and the Model A Fords to say they were great for their time, and recognizable in our cars; it is an occasion to be analytical — to think about how we got to where we are today and how we must plan for tomorrow.

The lectures presented will be the subject of a meeting report in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, and they demonstrated the breadth and depth of cutaneous science. Many of the topics, such as those related to epidermis and hair, have been major clinical and research interests of Dr. Baden for over 50 years. As I soaked and luxuriated in science for a full day, there was a high and humbling appreciation for the incremental nature of most of the advances in biological and medical sciences. Of course, non- incremental new technologies have been applied to biological systems, but the basic human organism and its diseases and physiologies obviously changes slowly or not at all. There are new disease vectors, new chemical agents for good and for bad. If Paul Ehrlich, Paul Unna, or Stephan Rothman were in the audience they would have understood exactly how and why we had advanced from their times, and they would have told Dr. Baden and the current generation of researchers, “Well done! Keep on trucking, you are on the right paths.”

Many speakers and participants had trained under Dr. Baden’s tutelage during and after their residency. Each resident and junior faculty is not Tabula Rosa but is impressionable and is developing his or her professional superego and role models. Many of us carry a bit of Howard Baden in an epigenetic form. His career exemplifies the best of what an academic researcher and patient care teacher can accomplish, including the inspiration to continue to strive for the best. Many testimonials presented during the day remain in the minds and hearts of the participants, and they will be part of the oral tradition which exists alongside and complements the bytes and pixels of the day. As science and research become more and more a large team effort, the role that one individual can play was and should always be emphasized — as it was on that dark and rainy day in Boston.

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