101-year-old S.F. doctor gets a house call from Itzhak Perlman

At 10 minutes past 11 a.m., an expectant hush had fallen over the boardroom in one of UCSF’s medical buildings.

About a dozen distinguished doctors, most of them from the hospital’s arthritis center, were gathered around a long table. At its head was Dr. Ephraim Engleman, who, at 101 years and 2 weeks old, has been working in the field of arthritis research for longer than some of the other doctors there had been alive.

Engleman, who continues to work most days of the week on campus, is certainly well known at UCSF and in arthritis research circles. But when the door finally swung open, the doctors and researchers found themselves in the presence of a different form of celebrity.

Dr. Ephraim Engleman (left) enjoys a laugh with virtuoso violinist Itzhak Perlman on April 12 at UCSF. photo/emma silvers

“Where’s the matzah?” cracked Itzhak Perlman, one of the world’s preeminent modern violinists,  as he cruised into the room on an electric scooter. It was the first of many laughs he would elicit over the next 90 minutes, as he took time out of his schedule — he was in town for three performances with the San Francisco Symphony, as both a conductor and a soloist — to meet with Engleman and his colleagues.

A light, easy banter developed between the 66-year-old Israeli-born musician and the 101-year-old San Jose–born doctor. It set the tone for a discussion on topics that swerved from cutting-edge theories on pain management to the meaning of the word “talent” to understanding stage fright. (Perlman still gets nervous before he plays.)

Engleman prompted various doctors to present some of their latest findings, while Perlman listened, engaged, before offering anecdotes from his own lengthy career.

“Do you experience stress in your performances?” Engleman asked Perlman, after one doctor had spoken on human stress responses in relation to arthritis treatment.

“Are you kidding?” said Perlman, not missing a beat, with a slight Israeli accent in his booming voice. “All the time … it’s about getting comfortable with it. If you can’t solve it, you become familiar with it.” He added that, at the Perlman Music Program (founded by his wife, Toby), a good deal of time is spent teaching young, gifted students management techniques for their nerves.

“Sometimes we try, you know, ‘Run around the block for five minutes and then come back and start right away!’ ” he said, imitating an out-of-breath student picking up the violin. “It’s something nearly everyone struggles with.”

Perlman and Engleman have known each other for some 43 years, and despite their 35-year age difference, the two Jewish men have much in common.

Perlman, who had polio as a child and performs sitting down, has long been personally engaged with this subset of the medical community. Two of his five children, Noah and Nava, battled rheumatoid arthritis, with Noah in awheelchair as a result from the ages of 8 to 11.

Nava first began showing signs at 19, said the musician, and struggled with the illness for five years.

“It has been several years where my kids, thank God, have been in remission,” Perlman said. “But the progress in medicine and medical research is so interesting to me. I wanted to know what has been going on … so this type of discussion is fascinating.”

As for Engleman? The physician, who joined the faculty at UCSF in 1948 as the first director of the Clinic for Arthritis, originally wanted to be a concert violinist. Born March 21, 1911, he grew up in San Jose playing the violin; by the time he was 16, he was playing along to silent movies in the orchestra pit of his local theater, and he went on to lead the house orchestra at the Fox California Theatre in San Jose. After high school, he attended Stanford University, where his parents urged him to study medicine, and then got his medical degree from Columbia University in 1937.

World War II changed his life. After serving as chief of the Army’s Rheumatic Fever Center, Engleman joined the clinical faculty at UCSF. He’s been there ever since, becoming founding director of the Rosalind Russell Medical Research Center, named for the actress who suffered from the condition, in 1979.

More than 40 years later, Engleman has no designs on retiring. Far from a figurehead, he’s as committed as ever to his leadership of the center, which is consistently ranked among the top two or three arthritis research groups in the world.

His love for music hasn’t abided, either. Since 1958, he’s hosted a Monday night quartet in his home with a retired lawyer, a retired dentist and a fourth member who rotates (the original cello player died a few years ago). “To me, music is just as important as my medicine,” he told the Chronicle in an interview last year. “I look forward to every Monday night more than anything else I can think of.”

Engleman first met Perlman in 1969 when a friend told him the 24-year-old rising star would be playing in San Francisco. “He said ‘There’s this Israeli kid, and he doesn’t know anyone there. You have to go meet him,’ ” the doctor recalled.

Engleman — who has been married to his wife, Jean, age 96, for 71 years — also collects violins as a hobby.

As the meeting drew to a close, the doctors took turns shaking Perlman’s hand, one sharing a story about having seen the violinist in an emotional performance in Berlin in 1989, the day before the Berlin Wall fell. Engleman thanked Perlman for coming, telling a television reporter it was a “great privilege and honor” to have the musician at the hospital.

And then, as soon as the camera was off, the doctor asked the virtuoso when he might have time to see one of the instruments from Engleman’s collection. Perlman had conducted the San Francisco Symphony in Tchaikovsky the night before at Davies Symphony Hall, and was set to do it again that night.

“I have some time,” the great violinist said. “I will find some time.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.