COSAM makes Alabama history at Harvard

TauntonCOSAM alumni David Taunton and Robert Copeland share more than their small-town roots. The foundations they built as pre-med students in the late 1950s and relationships they forged with key faculty members would carry them through Auburn and on to the Medical College of Alabama (now the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine). Upon graduation, they would make history as the college’s first students selected by Harvard Medical School for an internship and postgraduate training in internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, the primary teaching hospital of Harvard.

Growing up in nearby Tallassee, Ala., Taunton was the first in his family to attend college and, “went to Auburn for one reason. Mainly because it is only 27 miles east of Tallassee, so I could go home on the weekends and work at the textile mill to pay my way through college.”

As one of 11 children, eight of whom lived, Taunton said he was very independent by the time he was 12 years old.

“My first job was shining shoes when I was 9-and-a-half, and I have worked ever since. While I was at Auburn, I worked one shift on Friday, a double on Saturday, then I would go to church Sunday morning and head back to campus to study. Between studying and working at the mill on weekends, there was not much time left for excitement. There wasn’t much of a social life,” recalled Taunton. “But I got a solid foundation, especially in chemistry.”

Copeland grew up on a farm in Marshall County near Arab, Ala., where he attended what he thought was, “a pretty good high school. But then I got to Auburn and I was like, whoa!”

The adjustment to life as a student at a large university was so significant for Copeland, he wanted to leave after just one semester. At the behest of his parents, who pleaded with him to finish out the year, he remained and was soon “taken under the wing” of English professor Sara Carruth. Carruth introduced Copeland to other faculty members and was instrumental in his decision to stay at Auburn. One of the faculty members Copeland got to know was Frank Stevens, professor of chemistry. “I worked pretty hard, I was a pretty good student, and the chemistry department was remarkable,” recalled Copeland, echoing the sentiments of Taunton. “If you could handle the material in organic chemistry in particular, there was a pretty good chance you could handle medical school.”

CopelandThe two continued to the College of Alabama Medical School and became lab partners in their gross anatomy class. It was there they would meet another key figure, faculty member Dr. James Pittman, who would later become dean of the medical school.

“Pittman was concerned that the medical school graduates were not getting into some of the top internships. He had been at Mass. General before he came to Birmingham, and he called me into his office one day and said, ‘I want you to go to Harvard. They have a program for special students and there are six slots available.’ We were actually called ‘special students,’ because we had not attended Harvard Medical School,” Copeland recalled with a laugh. “Pittman knew the registrar at Harvard, and he made it possible for David Taunton and me to go there. In fact, I never even had to write a letter or complete an application.”

Taunton recalls being surprised by how different life was in Boston compared to living in Alabama.

“When I went to Mass. General in 1964, it was the height of racial unrest in Birmingham, so it was almost like going to a different country, although I discovered racial prejudice did not end at the Mason Dixon line. It was just more subtle,” said Taunton. “It was just a completely different culture from my small town in east Tallassee. But, I did well at Auburn, and I did well in medical school, and so, I did well in the residency program. I think we got more advanced knowledge at Harvard, and Bob and I held our own and did as well as anyone else from any other school.”

The similar paths of Taunton and Copeland did not end in Boston. Each went on to be named to the Board of Governors of the American Board of Internal Medicine, and both have had highly successful careers. Taunton conducted research at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Nutrition Laboratory in Denver for five years prior to joining the faculty at the Baylor College of Medicine. Taunton is a fellow of the American College of Physicians, and in 1987 he was named Internist of the Year by the Alabama Society of Internal Medicine. He spent more than 30 years in a private practice in internal medicine and endocrinology in Birmingham and is now enjoying his “retirement” as an attending physician in the Department of Medical Education at Baptist Health System.

Copeland practices internal medicine and cardiology in a private practice in LaGrange, Ga. He is a longtime member, fellow, and master of the American College of Physicians, and he has served the organization on a number of committees. In 1991, he was named Governor of the Year by the organization, and he received the Alfred Stengel Award for Outstanding Service to the American College of Physicians in 2002. Copeland is currently chair emeritus on the Board of Regents for the American College of Physicians, and chair emeritus on the Board of Trustees for the American College of Physicians Foundation. He has served as clinical professor at UAB and Emory, and he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine.

TauntonThe two friends continue to share a love of Auburn and an appreciation for the successes they have achieved as a result of the foundations laid on the Plains. Taunton said, “I never regretted going to Auburn, and I would not change a thing if I had it to do over again.” Copeland agreed, “All these years later, I still think about my time at Auburn and people like Frank Stevens who gave more of themselves than just teaching class. He showed interest in me, as did many professors at Auburn, which made me work harder. Auburn was wonderful for me, it was hard work and wonderful. I wouldn’t take anything for having been a part of it.

“I found out years after medical school that Frank Stevens had spoken well of me to the admissions board, and if he spoke well of you, it went a long way toward gaining admission to medical school a year early. Life is all about relationships, and he was a really important figure to a lot of people.”

An endowed scholarship has been established in memory of former Auburn chemistry professor Frank Stevens. For more information or to make a contribution to the scholarship, contact Sherri Rowton in the COSAM Office of Development at or 334.844.1235.