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Rolf C. Syertsen 1896-1960
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Rolf C. Syvertsen 1896-1960

Rolf Christian Syvertsen's path to a position at the center of the Dartmouth Medical School solar system was an eccentric one.

He was born on March 22, 1896, in Taunton, Mass., the second son in a family of five children. Two of his siblings died at an early age-one of meningitis and the other from a lightning strike. Sy's father, a heating and ventilation engineer, intended for his son to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (where young Rolf had already been accepted) until he visited Dartmouth to consult on some heating problems in College buildings. The senior Syvertsen was so impressed by Dartmouth-especially the Outing Club, which he felt would be beneficial for his 100-pound son-that he redirected his son northward.

Rolf Syvertsen matriculated at Dartmouth in September 1914, electing to major in premedical studies and to minor in English, economics, and psychology (could he have foreseen that he would be not only a doctor, but also secretary of the Medical School, an administrator, and a student counselor?). He was active in the Dartmouth Outing Club and on the track team.

Sy's studies were interrupted by war when, in the spring of 1917, he enlisted in the army. He served in the 301st Field Signal Battalion and had risen to the rank of sergeant first class by the time of his discharge in May 1919. This was the first of only two departures from Dartmouth for Sy, and he was back finishing his undergraduate work and beginning his medical studies later that year. However, it took him four years to complete the two-year DMS program, as he was also holding down several jobs. While still a student, he was also an instructor in biology and evolution. He also worked in a laboratory and served as an assistant to both the registrar and the dean of the College. In his final year as a student, Sy lived rent-free in the College Observatory in exchange for taking instrument readings twice a day.

In 1923, when he graduated from DMS, Sy was the only member of his class who did not transfer to another medical school to complete his medical degree. He stayed behind to teach anatomy and serve as the secretary of the Medical School. He had chosen his life's work but was in the unusual position of teaching M.D. candidates while he himself still did not hold an M.D. But for Sy, the degree was less important than his dedication to the students and the School. These years saw the birth of Syvertsen the concerned administrator and teacher, who has assumed such large proportions in the memories of alumni.

Sy took his second leave from Dartmouth in 1930 to finally finish his M.D. at Rush Medical College in Chicago. In 1932, he was awarded a four-year certificate, as Rush withheld the degree until a year of internship had been completed. The problem for Sy was that DMS Dean John Bowler could not spare him from his teaching duties to do an internship. Not until 1935 was he able to move down the street to Mary Hitchcock and spend a year as an intern. On June 16, 1936, after he had been teaching anatomy to medical students for 13 years, Rush awarded him his degree, and Rolf C. Syvertsen could add M.D. after his name.

Except for that one-year stint as a lowly intern, Sy never practiced medicine. He was now an assistant professor of anatomy and Dean Bowler's right hand. Over the next 10 years, Sy inexorably settled into a central position at DMS and in the town of Hanover. In 1935, he had married Margaret Huntley Gordon, a native of Nova Scotia and a dietician at Mary Hitchcock. They had five daughters, one of whom died in infancy. The Syvertsens bought a homestead in Etna, and Sy became active in many groups, including the American Legion, the Dartmouth German Club, the DOC's Cabin and Trail Club, the Dartmouth Scientific Association, the Hanover Finance Committee, the St. Thomas Church choir, and the Hanover Volunteer Fire Department. A town proclamation issued at the time of Sy's death declared him "one of Hanover's most beloved citizens."

There was very little that went on in the town, the Hospital, the Medical School, or the College that Sy was not a part of. By 1938, he was a full professor, and, in 1945, he succeeded John Bowler as dean of Dartmouth Medical School. Sy also took upon himself the role of advisor to all Dartmouth College premeds. This meant that every student who passed through Dartmouth en route to a medical career met with Sy and had his course in life touched by that interaction.

The remaining years of Sy's career and life were uneventful. Biography thus becomes a weaker device for illuminating his character, and memory more potent. Sy remained at DMS and concentrated on laying the groundwork for his students' careers. It was his personal touch with students, strengthened by his many years of devotion to them, that lies at the root of all the memories alumni cherish to this day. Each person who knew him remembers something of his unique character. His untimely death in an automobile accident in 1960 ended the story of his life, but didn't end the myriad other stories in which he played a formative role-those represented by the lives of his students, friends, and colleagues. The memory of Dr. Syvertsen has a living influence still.


Text excerpts from
Rolf Christian Syertsen:
A Tribute to a Mentor
Published by the Dartmouth Medical School
Offices of Publications and Development
June 2000
Original Booklet Design
by Harp and Company


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