By the time Matthew Townsend found himself in the towers of the University of Oxford, he had already spent years standing out.
He was one of 32 American Rhodes scholars that year, after graduating summa cum laude from Yale, where he studied biology and was a 6-foot-7 power forward for the Bulldogs. He coordinated meal kitchens, worked at hospitals, and ran marathons in the off-season. He had been valedictorian and a star basketball player at his Chappaqua, N.Y., high school. So it came as little surprise when he traded one ivory tower for perhaps an even glossier one to study medical anthropology and public policy.
For Townsend, Oxford was a pivot point. A professor told him one day, after reading one of his papers, that if Townsend was offering solutions to health problems, he was “doing medical anthropology wrong,” he recalled. “At that point, I knew I didn’t want to be a professor of anthropology who is talking about issues disconnected from people’s experience. I wanted to be boots on the ground.”
Now a first-year resident at Duke University Medical Center, Townsend’s focus is on obesity medicine. He is pushing for holistic treatment approaches and policies that are free of weight stigma, with a focus on the needs of marginalized groups.
Townsend’s empathy was what struck his Harvard mentor Fatima Stanford, a Massachusetts General Hospital obesity medicine doctor. At Harvard, she learned Townsend had quietly given up his pre-assigned lead author spot on a paper so a young Black woman on his team who had also made significant contributions would be first. “I have yet to see that amongst any of my students that come from majority groups, particularly white males — ever,” Stanford said.
“Watching him continue to grow and thrive, and do it with a sense of selflessness, is what I think makes him stand out, and what makes me proud to call him one of my greatest successes.”
— Isabella Cueto