Thomas Haines, Biochemist Who Founded the CUNY Medical School, Dies at 90

Tom Haines 8/21/2021

He overcame a childhood in an orphanage and personal tragedies to found an innovative medical school to affordably educate minority and other disadvantaged students. In 2020, he was recognized for his achievement by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Thomas H. Haines, a biochemist who co-founded the City University of New York Medical School, died at home Sunday December 17, 2023. The cause of death was Alzheimer’s Disease. He is survived by his wife, Mary “Polly” Cleveland, his daughter, Avril Haines, and her husband, David Davighi.

Thomas Henry Haines was born on August 9, 1933, to Elsie Cubbon Haines (1894–1955) and Charles Haines, who deserted when Haines was two. In 1937, “by reason of the insanity of the mother”, a judge placed him at the Graham School, an orphanage in Hastings-on-Hudson New York. The orphanage, now Graham social services and foster care agency, was founded in 1806 by Isabella Graham and Elizabeth Hamilton, the recently widowed wife of Alexander Hamilton. Dr. Haines remained at the orphanage until high school, when he became a resident houseboy and gardener for a wealthy Hastings family. His remarkable life story appears in his autobiography, A Curious Life: From Rebel Orphan to Innovative Scientist (2019).

Dr. Haines attended the City College of New York, with a B.S. in chemistry in 1957 and an M.S. in education in 1959. During that time he worked as live-in baby sitter for then-blacklisted American songwriter Jay Gorney (co-writer with Yip Harburg of the Depression era anthem, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”) and his wife Sondra. There he came to know many other blacklisted professionals including actors Zero Mostel, Paul Robeson, and Lionel Stander, philosopher Barrows Dunham, and Bella Abzug, then a young lawyer defending blacklisted artists and intellectuals at HUAC hearings.

After CCNY, Dr. Haines taught elementary school science at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. He then became a laboratory assistant to Richard Block at the Boyce Thompson Institute where he studied the bizarre protozoan microorganism Ochromonas danica. Dr. Block became his friend and mentor, training him in laboratory techniques and raising his aspirations. When Dr. Block and his wife died in a plane crash, Dr. Haines was devastated, but nonetheless took over and completed Block’s research projects.

In 1964 he obtained his PhD in chemistry from Rutgers University. That same year, he became assistant professor of chemistry at City College. He became associate professor in 1969 and full professor in 1972, at age 39, a position he would hold until retiring in 2007. He continued laboratory research on O. danica, and taught biochemistry both at City College and at the new City University Graduate Center.

Part of Dr. Haines’ job was to advise City College students who were preparing to go to medical school. As he reports in his autobiography, A Curious Life,

“I soon realized that the existing system discriminated against low-income students, especially blacks and other minorities…The conventional route to an M.D. in the US and Canada requires four years of college, followed by four years of medical school. Premed undergraduates must take a year each of biology, physics, basic chemistry, and organic chemistry. The first two years of medical school curriculum consist of classroom courses in basic science. This route to an M.D. has two serious drawbacks. First, undergraduate premed courses either duplicate portions of the first years of medical school or are irrelevant. Second, entry to medical school is ferociously competitive, and medical school tuition is prohibitively expensive. In all nations other than the US and Canada, students begin medical school as high school graduates.”

In 1970, City College appointed a new president, Dr. Robert E. Marshak. Dr. Marshak, a prominent physicist, came to City College from the University of Rochester, bent on developing a strong urban university. “This college was founded to help the socially disadvantaged, and that’s what I wanted to do,” he often explained. Dr. Haines approached Dr. Marshak and found him immediately receptive to what they called a biomedical program at City College. “Marshak had a vision of a medical school that would train minority students as physicians who would then return to serve their communities.”

After extensive exploration, Dr. Haines discovered a plan for a six-year medical program for undergraduates. The plan, developed for the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, had been rejected by faculty who felt it would be demeaning to teach undergraduates.

In a two-year mad scramble, Marshak and Haines developed the program, hired faculty, raised the money, and admitted the first class in the fall of 1973. The program was named The Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education after a major funder.

The program had the following key features. As in medical schools outside the US and Canada, incoming freshmen took a year-long course in Gross Human Anatomy, including cadaver dissections. As Dr. Haines emphasizes, this would put all students on the same footing regardless of how good or limited their academic backgrounds. The program also included a four-year interdisciplinary series of courses on Health Medicine and Society. Given the reality that many students would be ill-prepared, the program provided intensive remedial support. The students would all have to pass national medical school boards, putting them on the same level as graduates of other medical schools. After four years, the students were “matched” to internship positions for the two clinical years in a consortium of conventional medical schools, including New York University, Mount Sinai, and Howard University. In those days, City College had no tuition.

The first key to the program was recruiting applicants. For this, the program advertised heavily in schools with a large population of poor, minority, and immigrant students. It also established an outreach program called Bridge to Medicine, to motivate high school students to consider medicine.

The second key was selecting the actual students. As Dr. Haines recounts in his autobiography,

“The admissions procedure had to avoid bias and quotas. If we wanted to get more minorities into medical school, we had to find a way of choosing them without ethnic or racial prejudice.

“When I set out to establish an admissions committee, I had no students and no faculty. For interviewers, I leaned on the City College faculty and upon former CCNY students who were now in medical school. Our new fifteen-member Admissions Committee had no prior experience with medical students, let alone with such a unique program. I divided the committee into five three-member subcommittees. For each subcommittee, I enlisted one student, one regular science faculty member, and one person who had contacts within the black or other ethnic communities. Those three people together would not only make up one-fifth of the Admissions Committee, but they would also be an “interviewing committee.” I tried to make sure that every potential student would have someone of like ethnicity on their interviewing committee. Our admissions committee included everyone: black, Latino, Chinese, Orthodox Jews, and other ethnic groups. It included outside women doctors, because there were very few women scientists in the faculty at that time. There was no bias against female applicants. One of the neat things about admitting students straight from high school is that the girls are way ahead of the boys in maturity and frequently interview as better candidates. The girls we admitted always did better!

“The personal interview was a vital part of admissions. But how should we structure the interview? I devised a simple solution. The first question one of the three interviewers asked a student would be: “Tell us about last weekend. What did you do after you left school at 3:00 p.m. Friday, hour by hour, through the weekend? And tell us what time you did things—have dinner, play a game, watch a show, read a book—how long it lasted, what time you went to bed, what time you got up; everything that happened over the weekend.” This generally took the first ten minutes, giving the three-person committee a stock of stories that provided insight into the applicant’s qualities.

“The students had come prepared to be asked: “Why do you want to be a doctor?” But we never asked that question, because the answer was obvious. Most of the applicants came from immigrant or underprivileged families, and they were seeking entry to medical school in order to secure a good education and a good life. The students didn’t understand why we were asking such silly questions: What were we looking for? Meanwhile, we were putting together a picture of their energy level, motivation, interests, and readiness to serve the community, so that we could find students that were energized—or “energize-able,” if we could get them into our program. This way, the admissions procedure could start with a clean slate.”

For the next 30 years, Dr. Haines taught biochemistry in the program. He also taught summer remediation and counseled struggling students and their families. The students often voted him most popular professor.

Soon after the program founding, a second personal tragedy struck. In 1960, he had married Adrienne Rappaport, a successful artist who painted under the name Adrian Rappin. In 1969, they had a daughter, Avril Danica Haines (now the Director of National Intelligence in the Biden Administration). In 1978, Ms. Rappaport was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; she later developed avian tuberculosis. She was given two years to live. Dr. Haines closed his laboratory and gave up all but teaching in the program. He and their daughter spent the next seven years nursing Ms. Rappaport in a home ICU until she died in May 1985.

In 1986, Dr. Haines married Dr. Mary “Polly” Cleveland, an economist. He resumed full time teaching and writing. Instead of reopening his lab, he collaborated with colleagues, supplying ideas for experiments. He published extensively on the structure and function of living biological membranes, including on the function of cholesterol in blocking sodium leakage through membranes, and most recently on the function of cardiolipin in the mitochondrial membrane. On retiring from CCNY, he became a visiting professor in the Laboratory of Thomas Sakmar at Rockefeller University.

Dr. Haines also resumed public interest activities. From 1994 to 2001, he chaired the Partnership for Responsible Drug Information, which organized lectures and conferences to educate the public about alternatives to the “War on Drugs.” In 2010, he joined the Board of Directors of the Graham School—as the only member who had lived at the orphanage.

The Biomedical Program, remodeled along more conventional lines, continues today as the CUNY School of Medicine. Although disappointed that the program failed to set off a revolution in US medical education, Dr. Haines took great pride that most of its over 2500 graduates practice in their home communities. Now that the US Supreme Court has ruled against affirmative action, the program offers an alternative path to diversity without racial scoring. In 2020, Dr. Haines was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science “For initiating and setting up the CUNY Medical School at City College of New York to educate minority and disadvantaged students.”

In recent years, despite failing memory, Dr. Haines remained cheerful, outgoing, and optimistic. As he told the assembled guests at his 88th birthday celebration: “May all of you have a wonderful, wonderful life as I have been lucky to have.”

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