In 2015, the Department of Immunology at the University College London (UCL) rented a room above the King & Queen pub in London for a seminar series. Among the speakers was David Isenberg, MD, FRCP (Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians), FAMS (Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences), who still serves as UCL’s academic director of rheumatology. Dr. Isenberg was very excited, but not just about his talk, which would focus on his career in rheumatology and immunology. He had heard that Bob Dylan had performed in the same room the first time he visited London in 1961. Could it be true?
It was. A plaque on the wall commemorated Dylan’s first London performance.
Dr. Isenberg couldn’t resist the urge. He honored the famous musician by supplementing his talk with a song or two.
“I truly felt the plectrum of history on my shoulders,” he says.
For more than 50 years, Dr. Isenberg has been rewriting the lyrics to popular songs by many artists, including Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen, and performing them at UCL holiday parties, medical conferences and charity events. He has also recorded nine CDs with his band—Lupus Dave and the Davettes. (Scroll down to see video of the band playing at The Lupus Academy’s sixth annual meeting, and click these links to hear two more songs here and here.)
His medical career has been gratifying, says Dr. Isenberg, but his creativity has mostly been channeled toward his musical interests, which include playing the guitar. Meanwhile, he says there are still many more patients to treat, research to do, lyrics to write and songs left to sing.
Paul Simon Would Be Proud
As a child, Dr. Isenberg attended summer camp for several years. On the last evening, the camp supervisors and some of the children would perform funny skits. Although he can’t remember how he came up with the idea, Dr. Isenberg rewrote the lyrics to “La Bamba” to focus on the man who ran the summer camp.
The fledgling songwriter continued this hobby through high school, college and even medical school. He also learned to play the guitar. Years later, he became involved with a musical theater group called the National Pruning Board (don’t ask him how that name was chosen) and later formed Lupus Dave and the Davettes.
“I’m really a frustrated lyricist,” he says, adding that most of his lyrics are funny and reflect his life in medicine. “I mostly look for a reflective or humorous edge and write songs that will make people smile, even laugh.”
Take Paul Simon’s song, “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.” He rewrote it as “Fifty Ways to Treat Arthritis.”
Then there’s a re-written version of The Beatles song, “Things We Said Today.” Here’s how that song starts:
You say you will help me with my experiment
Reagents have gone missing and my
pipette is bent
The centrifuge is leaking
My incubator’s on the blink
I called our chief technician, but she’d gone to her shrink!
The band’s humor extends beyond songs. When performing, the Davettes wear wigs with outrageous colors.
Over the years, the band has performed at medical conferences in the U.K., Portugal, France, U.S. and Israel. But due to music copyright laws, Dr. Isenberg says no money ever changes hands.
In 2004, the band recorded its first CD and has since distributed all nine for free to colleagues or anyone else who wants them. He says that Peter Lydyard, BSc, MSc, PhD, emeritus professor of immunology at UCL, is not only a talented singer and guitarist in the band but also its sound engineer who records the CDs.
“Lupus Dave and the Davettes are a musical phenomenon,” says fan Susan Manzi, MD, MPH, chair at the Medicine Institute, Allegheny Health Network, and professor of medicine at Temple University School of Medicine, Philadelphia. “Even the pandemic did not slow down production of their latest album, Cloud Nine. In fact, it provided plenty of material for song lyrics. A few of my favorites are ‘Stir Crazy,’ ‘Home Schooling,’ ‘Lullaby’ and the best one of all, ‘To Meet on Zoom.’ They have entertained us for years and their live performances should be on everyone’s bucket list … bright-colored wigs and all!”
Can You Fiddle or Keep a Beat?
Dr. Isenberg is well known in his department for asking job candidates at the end of interviews, “Oh, by the way, can you sing?” As of now, he says the band could use a violinist or drummer from time to time. If your family doesn’t make up excuses to leave the house when you practice or play, Dr. Isenberg encourages you to contact him.
“I’ve enjoyed my job enormously,” says Dr. Isenberg, who own three guitars. “But music helps me relax and is a nice antidote to the hardest parts of my work.”
Carol Patton is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas.
Professional & Academic Background
1973: Received medical degree from St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London. Trained in general medicine, rheumatology, neurology, psychiatry and gastroenterology
1979: Served as research fellow, University College & Middlesex School of Medicine (UCMSM), London
1982–83: Attended Tufts Medical Center, Boston (formerly New England Medical Center); studied autoantibody structure/function and origin
1984: Awarded an MD thesis based on his studies of myositis; appointed consultant rheumatologist at UCMSM
1991: Appointed professor of rheumatology, University College London (UCL)
1996: Named the arthritis research campaign (now called Versus Arthritis) Diamond Jubilee Professor of Rheumatology, UCL
2004–06: Elected president of the British Society for Rheumatology (BSR)
2006–11: Chaired the BSR’s Biologics Register Committee
2010: Received the Evelyn Hess award from the Lupus Foundation of America
2013–2021: Non-executive board member, Versus Arthritis
2015–present: Chairs the Research Committee for Lupus UK
2016: Designated a Master by the ACR
2016–19: Co-chaired Division 5 of north London’s local clinical trials
2012–20: Served as non-executive director for the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, Stanmore, England