Zebra Cards > Aphorism Inventor 


    Who Coined the Aphorism?[Top]
When you hear hoofbeats behind you, don't expect to see a zebra.
- - Theodore E. Woodward, MD
University of Maryland
circa 1950

For 15 years I was unable to discover who coined this phrase.

There was not much evidence to go on. One printed source, a physician's memoir, indicated that the phrase was already common in at least one New York teaching hospital in the early 1960s. I had seen the phrase ascribed to Dr. Philip Tumulty of Johns Hopkins, but in a 1982 conversation with me he denied it.

Then, in 1995 I made a presentation to a continuing medical education course at Hopkins. A member of the audience recalled hearing it during his medical training in the 1950s. He suggested I speak with his former chief, Dr. Theodore Woodward of the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

Dr. Woodward is now Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland. An infectious disease specialist, he is affiliated with the Baltimore Veterans Administration Hospital.

Dr. Woodward was most gracious on the telephone. He admitted that he probably had something to do with coining the phrase. His original admonition to medical trainees in the late 1940s was "Don't look for zebras on Greene Street." (The University of Maryland Hospital is located on Greene Street in Baltimore.) How this developed into the precise wording of the aphorism is still unknown. Nevertheless, it seems proper to credit Dr. Woodward with inventing it.

Dr. Woodward has published his memoirs:

Make Room for Sentiment: A Physician's Story. Theodore E. Woodward; in collaboration with the Medical Alumni Association of the University of Maryland and the Historical Society of Carroll County. Baltimore: The Association, 1998. ISBN 0961911913. Library of Congress control number: 98015858.

    ©1986-2000 John Sotos, MD. All rights reserved.  Last updated 16:32 PDT on July 4, 2000.[Top]

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