For 40 years, Ed Feller has been an inimitable teacher, mentor, and friend at Brown.
When Walter Klyce MD ’18 was trying to decide when to get married, he didn’t seek help from his parents or religious leader. Even his fiancée wasn’t sure what to do. So Klyce went to see Ed Feller.
“Dr. Feller’s known as a good person for giving life advice,” he says.
The two men had never met before. But Feller was ready with words of wisdom.
“When you’re in the medical profession, there is real pressure to put that before everything else. He does a good job of saying it doesn’t have to be your whole world,” Klyce says. “He said, ‘Medical school is fine, but getting married is a huge deal. You should plan your life around getting married, not around medical school.’ So we’re getting married in April, during a week off.”
Feller’s deprioritization of medicine and medical education may be unconventional, but it wouldn’t surprise any of the hundreds of students, alumni, colleagues, and others he’s befriended in his 40 years at Brown. “He’s one of a kind,” says Alex Morang, director of career development. “They broke the mold.”
On paper, Edward Feller, MD, PMD’03 sounds like a conventionally overachieving, ultra-accomplished Ivy League medical school faculty member. A gastroenterologist, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and New Jersey Medical School and trained at McGill and Harvard. His expertise in endoscopic techniques to visualize the pancreatic and bile ducts got the attention of a GI group in Providence, which recruited him; he went on to lead the GI division at The Miriam Hospital for 18 years. He’s a clinical professor of medical science at the Warren Alpert Medical School, and he codirected the Community Health Clerkship for a decade. Until last year he also was a clinical professor of health policy, services, and practice at the Brown School of Public Health.
But look closer at his CV. Feller left clinical practice in 2002 so he could devote himself to teaching at Brown. His 10-page list of scientific publications and presentations is liberally peppered with boldface and underlined type, to call out his hundreds of med student and resident coauthors. He’s earned dozens of awards and honors for teaching, mentoring, and humanism.
And then there’s that four-year stint at the University of Dijon Medical School, in France, with no degree earned. “I graduated the University of Pennsylvania with a 2.2 grade point average,” Feller says frankly. “I couldn’t get into any medical school in the United States.”
Then he flunked his second year at Dijon. And he couldn’t pass Step 1. “I was a horrible student,” he shrugs.
He’ll share these facts with anyone—especially medical students. “That kind of honesty about personal failures,” Klyce says, “you can’t believe how rare that is in medicine. People think confessing fault shows weakness.”
“The students walk away feeling, boy, if Dr. Feller had all of these stumbling blocks … that gives me hope,” Morang says. “Maybe I will get through this, and I will also be successful.”
If you know Woody Allen’s voice, you’ll recognize Ed Feller’s. He has a kind face, the trace of a smile dancing on his lips. His white coat days behind him, his work uniform now is neat but casual: a sweater over a collared shirt, dark jeans, and a red Brown University lanyard with his Miriam Hospital badge. When you bump into him at the Medical School, he has a friendly word or an inquiry about some tiny detail in your life that he recalls from your last encounter, even if it was weeks or months ago; friends, colleagues, and students marvel at his photographic memory.
He grew up in Brooklyn, in Williamsburg, when it was “really a slum.” The son of a housewife and a general practitioner, whose office was in their basement, Feller sometimes tagged along on his dad’s house calls. Tall and lanky, he played basketball in high school and as a freshman at Penn. There he studied English, “and I got Cs, Ds, and Fs in my science courses,” he says. “I didn’t have to worry about what to do in the summer. I was always at summer school.”
Feller started running in college. “The most interesting thing about me is my lifelong hobby is running nonstop, 100-mile trail races in mountains,” he says. (The second most interesting thing, he adds, is that 2.2 GPA from Penn.) He’s run some of the best known ultramarathons, including Leadville (“I think I saw God at about 80 miles”) and Vermont (the “easiest” of the 100s), and the Boston Marathon more times than he can count.
“It’s a simple measure of your own worth,” he says of running. “You just get out and do it. And I’ve always felt great about that. And I just don’t back off. … I know what it means when it’s the middle of the night, and you’re on top of a mountain, you’ve got a flashlight, and you’re just exhausted, and you just say, well, I’m just going to keep doing it.”
That same doggedness—not mental strength, he insists, just doggedness—kept him on the path to medicine, even when no US med school would take him, even after his failing year in Dijon. His wife, Wendy, an actor, supported them by singing in cafes. Feller took stock of himself, shaped up, and earned the grades to transfer to New Jersey Medical School for his third and fourth years. “France made me a man,” he likes to say.
Feller didn’t plan to pursue gastroenterology, but he fell in love with Montreal, and McGill, when he and Wendy went there to visit his brother, a surgical resident. The only elective available to Feller as a med student was in GI, so he took it, then stayed for residency. He liked the research, too; during his fellowship at Mass General, he published two papers in the New England Journal of Medicine, one as lead author. An expert in endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography, or ERCP, Feller had joined the clinical faculty at Harvard, in 1977, when Herbert Rakatansky, MD ’56, a cofounder of a GI practice in Providence, came calling.
“We wanted to recruit people who were smarter than we were,” says Rakatansky, now a clinical professor emeritus of medicine. “We wanted to stay on the cutting edge. He had certain skills we didn’t have.” The new recruit also had to want to teach, supervise, and patiently explain himself to inquisitive students and residents. “[Feller] had a desire to be in an intellectually stimulating environment,” Rakatansky says. “He was a superb, multitalented gastroenterologist.”
But never intimidating. Anish Sheth ’97 MD’01 was interested in GI before he took an elective with Feller; the experience clinched his decision. “He sort of made it a no-brainer because he was such an inspirational guy,” says Sheth, a gastroenterologist with Princeton Medical Group in New Jersey. “His way to approach medicine in education is to take knowledge that’s encyclopedic and present in a way an individual could understand.”
Sheth has appeared on TV shows like the Rachael Ray Show and Good Morning America to answer common questions about GI problems, and he’s co-authored a few books for a lay audience, including What’s Your Poo Telling You? Feller, he says, “showed me you can be a great doctor and teacher and also be down to earth and have a sense of humor.”
Feller used the same approach with his patients. “In practice he was responsive, attentive, caring, and he has an encyclopedic knowledge of medical literature,” says longtime friend and colleague Fred Schiffman, MD, P’96MD’00, the Sigal Family Professor of Humanistic Medicine. “He always knew what the current information is and is able to put it in perspective” and into practice. “He would make creative, original connections and he was able to step back and see things from a different angle.”
He wanted future doctors to be able to do the same. For 30 years, Feller has supervised a weekly journal club at The Miriam for third-year students, teaching them how to read scientific articles, put them into context, and identify their merits and flaws. For each paper, he assigns a facilitator role to one student, and questions to everyone else. Then they discuss it over lunch; Feller provides the cookies. “The way he does it, everyone contributes because everyone has a role,” Klyce says. “He puts a lot of thought into it.”
“I don’t know of any other experience in my medical career that has been as fruitful in teaching me process to enable me to generate perspectives independently,” Aaron Kofman MD’14, an internal medicine resident at UC San Diego, writes in an email. “I carry Dr. Feller’s approach with me regularly and know it has made an enormous impact on my practice.”
The education portion of Feller’s job description was key to luring him to Providence from Boston. “I’ve always loved teaching,” he says. As much as he loved his clinical work, over time he realized that he loved his work with students even more. “I decided that if I died without teaching full time, I would have missed something,” he says. “I literally just left my day job.”
Now ensconced in the Medical School, Feller is in his element. In addition to the journal club and periodic lectures, he teaches first-year Doctoring, and at any given time he’s working with a dozen or more students on projects for publication or presentation. This school year Alex Morang asked him to be one of five faculty advisers.
“I had always thought of him, how do we tap this reservoir that he has, of knowledge and interest and passion of working with the students?” Morang says. “I think that speaks to how highly I value him, that we only have five people who have been selected to do that, to work with all of our students in that capacity, in such a longitudinal way.”
This new title makes official what Feller’s been doing for years: mentoring and guidance, in life and career. “Dr. Feller truly wants students to figure out what makes them happy in medicine,” Kofman writes. “Dr. Feller’s mission is to really push you to investigate all aspects of what drives you and make decisions that help you hone your professional future.”
Kofman says it is thanks to Feller’s early and enthusiastic support that he will begin a two-year fellowship with the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service this summer. Some may consider public health an “unconventional” career path for an MD, he says, but Feller affirmed his choice from the start.
That’s evidence, Kofman writes, of “how much he invests in getting to know his students and help them find the path that is the most rewarding for them.”
Many current and former students praise Feller for pushing them to challenge themselves. Michelle Diop ScM’19 MD’19, who’s in the Primary Care-Population Medicine Program and hopes to pursue a career in palliative care, had disappointing research experiences before coming to Brown. She told Feller she was concerned about finding a mentor who shared her goals for the program’s required thesis project.
“I was only interested in qualitative work, but he vouched for a mentor with quantitative work,” she says. Feller connected her with Associate Professor of Medicine James Rudolph, MD. Now she loves research; their meta-analysis on palliative care interventions for patients with heart failure—of which Diop was lead author—was published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine in January.
Diop says Feller regularly sends her articles about palliative care and tells her about events and opportunities in the field. “The fact he remembers what I’m interested in … when he has so many students and remembers me—he’s amazing,” she says.
“Dr. Feller has a real passion to help other people with their passion,” says Za Janopaul-Naylor ’10 MD’14, a psychiatry resident at Harvard. She met Feller just weeks before she graduated, but he tracked her down after she got to Boston with an offer to cowrite a chapter on cyberbullying for the medical textbook The 5-Minute Clinical Consult. They’ve collaborated on three editions.
“His openness to all areas of interest is really surprising. He’s a GI doc and here he is helping me with cyberbullying,” Janopaul-Naylor says. “Often people get siloed and feel they have expertise in only one area. He’s not scared to go outside his boundaries and to learn. He’s excited to learn about every topic.”
Anish Sheth says he and his wife, Shilpa Pai ’97 MD’01, a pediatrician, always visit Feller when they’re in Providence. “My wife has nothing to do with gastroenterology,” Sheth says, “but when we go out for dinner the two of them end up talking a lot more than he and I do. He can talk about anything. He’s passionate about a lot of stuff.”
In 2012 Sheth spearheaded the establishment of the Dr. Edward Feller Term Scholarship at the Medical School. “Everyone had a realization [Feller] was a special guy in medical school, but only when you leave Brown … you realize he’s very unique in what he does,” Sheth says. “This isn’t hyperbole: through medical school, residency, fellowship—to this day I don’t think I had a mentor as strong and influential as he was.”
“Medicine is the best,” Feller says. “I think that it’s the most extraordinary career and calling that you could have. … But I think life happiness is a great relationship, good friends, things which excite you and which you enjoy, and no nasty personal surprises.”
Feller always has enjoyed a full life outside of work, and constantly pushes med students to do the same. Thanks to his wife’s influence he’s an avid theater goer, and travels to theater festivals across the country. He loves jazz and classical music. He reads everything he can get his hands on. He hikes and he still runs (much shorter distances). He even tried playing the flute, after Wendy got him lessons as a gift. “I’ve always been good at finding stuff I love to do,” he says.
He and Wendy raised two children, both physicians: Alex MD’03, a psychiatrist in private practice who teaches at Weill Cornell Medical College; and Sophie, who is doing postdoctoral research at the UCLA Center for Health Services and Society. Both worked in other fields before deciding to go to medical school, which pleases their dad.
“I proselytize for taking time off and doing something great—especially for doctors, who start so early and just keep going through,” Feller says. “It’s that extra time that you spend doing something else that gives the depth and texture to living.”
Students who got to know Feller also knew his wife: Wendy was a regular presence on campus—she was a standardized patient in addition to her theater work—and at the dinners and social gatherings Feller hosted for his journal club groups and other classes. When Wendy was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, in 2004, the students rallied around them.
“Medical students would stay with her [at The Miriam]so I could go home and sleep for a couple of hours,” Feller says. “They would set up a system.”
“They took care of him,” Morang adds. “They were always checking in on him. And they were bringing meals. And they were taking care of him like you take care of family, because they see him as family.”
After Wendy received a bone marrow transplant, she went on TV and radio to encourage people to join marrow registries. That galvanized Feller to do the same on campus. In 2012 he received the Leadership Award from the National Marrow Donor Program, and he continues to advise registry drives at Brown. Since 2005, he says, his group has identified 27 donors—including Adam Vasconcellos ’07 MD’11, one of the students who coordinated the drives.
Wendy died in 2013. She and Feller had been married 45 years. “It will never be the same. My life is diminished,” he says. But he went back to work the next week. “It’s not what I do—it’s who I am.” Returning to work, he says, “was life enhancing.”
“Students are my safety valve,” he adds. “I feel close to a lot of students—like a generation of students.” He keeps in close contact with scores of current and former students, who treasure his funny emails, thoughtfulness, generosity, and unfailing support of their interests.
“Every time I see him, I walk away happy. He lifts you up,” Diop says. Kofman invited Feller to his wedding in California last fall. “All of the time, he’s flying somewhere to go to an alumni wedding, a baptism, a major life event,” Morang says. “I think that speaks volumes.”
Students and alumni also have spoken with honors and awards—many, many times over. Feller is a seven-time recipient of the Senior Citation, the highest honor a graduating class can confer on a faculty member. Thirteen graduating classes have given him the Faculty Award for outstanding teaching. He received the W.W. Keen Award from the Brown Medical Alumni Association in 2012. And the Association of American Medical Colleges has honored Feller four times with the Humanism in Medicine Award, which recognizes excellence in mentoring.
“Getting the awards is the gravy,” Morang says. “Making the connections and having these amazing experiences and these valuable relationships that, in many cases, have gone on for decades with the alumni, is the true reward.”
At 71, Feller says he never thinks about retiring. “I don’t consider what I do work. I feel as if I’m blessed,” he says. “I love writing, I love interacting with students, I’m learning every day new things. I have a lot of outside interests, but I love my work and I would do it forever.”