'I've been blessed that I can continue practicing and doing the things I love': A Q&A with Dr. Howard Tucker, the world's oldest physician

There's something very special about neurologist Howard Tucker, MD, who turned 100 on July 10. He teaches medical residents at Cleveland-based St. Vincent Charity Medical Center — and has also held the Guinness World Record for oldest practicing physician since February 2021. 

Dr. Tucker's medical career began in 1947. After serving in World War II and the Korean War, he went on to be a chief neurologist for the Atlantic fleet at a Philadelphia-based U.S. naval hospital during the Korean War. 

When he's not teaching residents, Dr. Tucker takes on medical-legal expert witness work. He also has four children and 10 grandchildren. A documentary about Dr. Tucker — titled What's Next? — is being produced by one of his grandchildren, Austin.

Dr. Tucker spoke with Becker's about the changes he's witnessed during his 75-year career, his biggest accomplishments, advice for young physicians and more. 

Question: What piqued your interest in medicine?

Dr. Howard Tucker: I’ve always had a desire to help people and I've always had a great fascination with the brain. 

When I graduated medical school in 1947 after serving in WWII, the practice of medicine, neurology specifically, was very cerebral. We didn't have imaging tools, like MRI or CT scans back then. You really had to think through a case and take a detailed history in order to fully understand what you were looking at. The challenges of thinking through a case, making a diagnosis, and then being able to help the patient have all kept me interested in medicine and are why I'm still practicing today. Of course, today we have more tools at our disposal to make a diagnosis, but I still teach my residents to take a detailed history upfront, really think through each case, and then use imaging or other technology to confirm the diagnosis.  

Many people ask me why I don’t retire now that I'm 100. My work, engaging with colleagues and residents, and thinking through cases all allow me to keep my brain active, which I believe is crucial. And I really love what I do.

Q: How has the healthcare industry changed since you began your career and what is the biggest medical advancement that you have witnessed during your career?

HT: Technology has dramatically changed the way we work and how we approach cases. Over the course of my career, CT and MRI were, in my opinion, the biggest advancements.  Treatments, too, have come a long way over the past 75 years, but the technology we have at our hands has given us better visibility into the brain and an expedited timeline for making an accurate diagnosis.  

That being said, I see too many physicians simply order an imaging study and rely solely on the scan to make a diagnosis as opposed to using it as one piece of the puzzle. Technology, despite how far we've come, has limitations, and it is our responsibility as physicians to understand these limitations. 

Many colleagues of mine retired because they did not want to deal with the technology changes. Technology, especially computers and digital record-keeping, definitely challenges me, but I am, and have been, determined to master it and embrace it in my work. The rate at which new therapies and technologies are evolving astonishes me.

Q: What has been your biggest accomplishment? 

HT: One of my most memorable accomplishments as a physician was solving the "Sleeping Beauties" case. My colleague and I were presented with two young girls; they would repeatedly go in and out of coma and this had been going on for months. Twenty or so other physicians at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center could not figure out what was wrong despite extensive testing. We decided to take a step back, look at all known factors in the case, and I soon realized that this was likely a case of barbiturate poisoning by the mother. I ordered additional blood work which, sure enough, confirmed my theory. While this discovery received widespread recognition and press in the early 1960s, I am always delighted when I can make a difficult diagnosis and ultimately help the patient.  

In addition to becoming a physician in 1947, I also received my law degree and passed the Ohio bar exam in 1989 at 67 years old, which I'm extremely proud of. I've always been fascinated by law and was inspired to get my degree after three of my children became lawyers. I'm also intrigued by medical-legal cases and continue to act as an expert medical witness for various cases. I've been blessed that I can continue practicing and doing the things I love.

Q: What advice do you have for young physicians or those who are interested in pursuing a career in healthcare? 

HT: In addition to taking a thorough history and thinking through a case before jumping right to ordering a scan, my advice for young physicians and those interested in pursuing a career in healthcare would be to stay current on new treatments and medical literature, but take caution to not be the first to prescribe a relatively new drug or therapy. There are so many advancements occurring in medicine each day; it is extremely important to wait until a sufficient amount of evidence regarding potential complications is presented before deciding to move forward with a treatment. Also, go into medicine for the right reasons; make sure it is something you absolutely love.

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