The Singing Pathologist

Arie Perry is a doctor who sings about tumors and diseases, and his songs are downright...infectious.

Recently, we happened upon a report on National Public Radio's "Marketplace" about a doctor who sings to the medical students he teaches. Okay, fine, we thought. We're singers. We understand the urge.

But then we heard one of his songs, a ditty about a rare brain tumor—primitive neuroectodermal tumor, to be exact—set to the melody of "Danny Boy." Here's how it starts: "Oh, primitive neuroectodermal tumor; ye be a harsh embryonal neoplasm. Hypercellular with apoptotic nuclei; a small blue cell tumor with little cytoplasm..."

It was lovely and, let's be frank, so very odd. We had to know more. So we phoned the composer, Arie Perry, MD, at his office at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he is professor of pathology and immunology, specializing in brain tumors. As we suspected, there was more to the story, and more songs, too.

As Perry relates it, the songs came as a result of a dare. In his second year of residency training, after several of his classmates had completed a case conference for the attending physicians, one of the attendings said, "You know, you residents are not entertaining enough."

Perry couldn't let that one go by. The next week he got up to present a talk about a tumor called a schwannoma. After showing the case, he picked up his guitar and presented his first medically-related song, "Schwannoma":

That was 16 years ago, and Perry's list of "disease songs" has grown to about 20, which he uses regularly in his classes with medical students.

Music as Memory Aide

Although the vast majority has given positive feedback, Perry has gotten rare negative reactions to his pieces. One medical student a few years back told Perry that he thought the songs were trivializing the suffering of patients.

"Oh, primitive neuroectodermal tumor; ye be a harsh embryonal neoplasm. Hypercellular with apoptotic nuclei; a small blue cell tumor with little cytoplasm..."

"That could not be farther from the truth," Perry asserts. "These are factual, not humorous. A lot of people, including myself, have better music memory than they have rote memory. I thought the songs might be useful for people in remembering a few key facts." In fact, a number of medical schools have asked Perry to make a CD of the songs for use in their training programs.

So yes, the songs are serious, but they do make you smile. How can you not be tickled by a song called "Craniopharyngioma," set to "Una Furtiva Lagrima" from the opera Elixir of Love by Giovanni Donizetti? Next to the "Danny Boy" rendition of "Primitive Neuroectodermal Tumor," Perry says that's his favorite.

Lest you think Perry's musical predilections are totally unorthodox, there's more. When Perry is not examining tumor cells under the microscope or regaling med students with his "infectious" songs, he sings with the American Kantorei, a group of vocalists and instrumentalists under the direction of Robert Bergt, that specializes in Baroque music. Every year on the Concordia Seminary campus, the group provides the music for a popular series of sacred concerts, called Bach in the Sem, featuring the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Catching the Music "Bug"

Arie got started in music the way a lot of young boys in the '70s did. He got a folk guitar in fifth grade and then in high school formed a rock band with some friends. "None of the other guys wanted to sing," Perry recalls, "and one of the guys was a much better guitarist than I, so I kind of, by default, became the singer."

That taste of singing was all it took. He joined the high school choir and started taking voice lessons. From then on, singing was an integral part of this life. As Perry moved from place to place getting his medical training, he always sought out a choir. While in Texas he sang with the Dallas Bach Society and while at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, he joined the Choral Arts Ensemble.

"I've stayed with choral singing for over 25 years," Perry says. "I've been enjoying it much more than I thought I ever would. It's impossible to imagine now not having singing in my life. It's a way of expressing your emotions and your passions."

Perry wonders if there's more than just a chance association between the medical profession and music. "I've noticed a lot of people in medicine are good musicians or music lovers. Those two genes must be close to each other."

We certainly believe you, doc.

"Toxoplasmosis" (set to "O Sole Mio")