From medieval literature to medical school: Cambridge grad sets sights on helping others

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As an elementary school student living in the picturesque village of Murs, France, Alexander Gabrovsky’s fascination with the medieval world took hold.

“The family we rented our house from lived in a hilltop chateau from the 12th century,” he said. “I used to spend time there and was mesmerized by the architecture and the family’s stories of their medieval ancestors.”

So much so that he has spent much of his life studying that time period. Gabrovsky, a student in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, not only holds a master’s degree and Ph.D. in medieval literature from the University of Cambridge in England, but he has written a book about Geoffrey Chaucer, who is widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages.

Published in September, “Chaucer the Alchemist: Physics, Mutability and the Medieval Imagination” investigates Chaucer’s fascination with the philosophical and scientific thinking surrounding change in the natural world. Gabrovsky argues an integrated knowledge of alchemy and physics is crucial to our understanding of the physical and psychological transformations that are central to Chaucer’s poetry. The 312-page tome expands on Gabrovsky’s Ph.D. dissertation.

“It was a lot of work, but I also had a lot of fun,” said Gabrovsky, who traveled to Italy to trace Chaucer’s footsteps and spent time in Scotland and Cambridge studying medieval manuscripts and deciphering cryptic verses on alchemy. “It’s surreal. It’s a strange feeling walking into the library here and seeing my book on the shelves.”

Some of Gabrovsky’s classmates who were on hand for his recent book signing on campus have the same reaction. But making the transition from medieval literature to medicine makes perfect sense, he said.

“I have a long list of reasons for going into medicine,” Gabrovsky said. “I enjoy the multidisciplinary aspect of it and the problem-solving. But it also comes down to helping the sick and vulnerable.”

Gabrovsky grew up Portland, Maine, then lived in southern France for a year while in elementary school. He graduated from high school in Los Angeles and earned a bachelor’s degree in English from UCLA in 2006. He took two semesters in Beijing, then completed a post-baccalaureate program at Johns Hopkins before completing his master’s and doctorate at Cambridge.

Now he’s pursing a degree that has been a dream of his all along.

With medicine, you take classes in all different aspects of science — there’s a broad spectrum of learning.

“I must really like wearing a backpack,” joked Gabrovsky, who taught medieval literature at Cambridge for a semester. “I love learning. With medicine, you take classes in all different aspects of science — there’s a broad spectrum of learning, but you have to integrate that knowledge to understand the rich complexity of the entire human body.”

This past summer, Gabrovsky spent time in Italy, where he worked in a lab reconstructing the skeleton of a 14th-century Tuscan peasant, who he thinks sustained a war injury to his femur. He analyzed bones from gravesites and studied ancient diseases.

Next summer, he will work alongside a VCU Health pathologist as they analyze and study South American mummies from pre-Columbian civilizations, such as the Incan Empire. He recently arranged a postdoctoral position in the U.K., hoping to take a research year between his second and third year of medical school to examine the influence ancient and medieval parasites may have had on human evolution.

“Alexander may not be your typical medical student, but that’s what makes VCU so great,” said Susan DiGiovanni, M.D., interim senior associate dean for medical education and student affairs. “Students like him add interest and depth to any conversation. They add such diversity to the class.”

Gabrovsky, who is not only fluent in both French and Mandarin Chinese but also reads several medieval languages, is not yet sure of his specialty, but is confident it will take shape over the next few years.

“I am sure that VCU is the perfect place for that to happen,” he said. “We have a well-known paleopathology lab here, as well as a paleopathology club, which is really unique for a medical school. And VCU has such a great culture. Everyone is so warm and welcoming. I really get the feeling we are all here to learn and help each other become the best in our field.”


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