On a Thursday afternoon this past September, Mehmet Oz was campaigning in the suburbs of Philadelphia in Springfield, Pa. During a town hall on Sept. 8, while criticizing his opponent Lt. Gov. John Fetterman on his approach to crime policy, Oz recalled his time as a medical student at Penn.
"I lived in West Philly. I could walk to school. It wasn’t a problem. I can’t make that walk today. You can’t either,” Oz said in reference to the rising crime rate in Philadelphia.
In a campaign for the U.S. Senate where Oz has faced relentless attacks about whether he is a true Pennsylvanian, Oz has sparsely mentioned his four years at Penn as a medical student and MBA candidate. Oz — who is endorsed by former President Donald Trump — has pushed a platform that includes strengthening domestic energy production, giving local officials control over abortion laws, and pushing back against "cancel culture."
The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with six former classmates who knew Oz about his transformation from a Quaker to a cardiothoracic surgeon, television personality, and now Republican candidate for Senate in one of the most closely watched races in the country this fall.
The classmates voiced criticism of questionable medical claims made by Oz on national television and his current campaign for Senate. Despite his notoriety, all of them described him as a student at Penn who was generally well-liked, worked hard, and intelligent.
Oz enrolled at Penn in 1982 after earning a bachelor's degree in biology from Harvard University. In 1986, he earned his MBA in health care management from the Wharton School and his medical degree from the Perelman School of Medicine — making Oz one of the first students to earn a joint M.D.-MBA from Penn.
Oz has garnered national attention through his time on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," his tenure as a Columbia University faculty member, and later on his own talk show "The Dr. Oz Show."
During this time, he continued to foster his connection to Penn. Five years ago, Oz spoke to over 200 Penn students in Houston Hall about how to achieve wellness. In 2012, he returned to campus to speak at the Wharton MBA graduation ceremony, and in 2011, the Wharton Club of New York awarded Oz the Joseph Wharton Award for social impact.
1986 Medical School graduate Steven Fisher, Oz's classmate during medical school, said he has seen "quite a dramatic change" in Oz's personality from their time at Penn together to the celebrity doctor today. Fisher recalled that Oz had invited him to a graduation party at his father's house in Wilmington, Del., where Oz grew up. Now, however, Fisher said he has "lost all respect for him."
"I know some of the things he said, [and] I think it’s extremely dangerous," Fisher said. "It’s contrary to everything we were taught as medical students; it’s contrary to the Hippocratic oath, to take care of patients."
Fisher said he took issue with Oz's support for hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment and what he described as "dog whistles" by the Republican Party. He said the Oz of today stood in stark contrast to his "outgoing, gregarious, pleasant" personality in medical school.
During his campaign for Senate, Oz has leveraged his career as a physician, prompting criticism from fellow doctors for his history of dispensing dubious medical advice unsupported by research. On Oct. 17, a group of 150 Philadelphia-area and Pennsylvania doctors said that his promotion of questionable medical recommendations make him a "major threat to public health," citing stories from patients who said they have been harmed by Oz's advice.
A recent review by Jezebel found that Oz conducted research which involved killing more than 300 dogs and inflicting serious, unethical harm on thousands of animals.
During his time at the Medical School, Oz demonstrated an interest in innovative or less-studied treatments that would become a focus of his popular television show. 1986 Medical School graduate Emanuel Garcia said that he and Oz joined a group of students that became known as "The Granolas" due to their interest in a healthy lifestyle, nutrition, and things that "weren't part of the general medical curriculum."
In a recently resurfaced clip from his appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" in October 2009 that drew attention online, Oz claimed that he was forced to taste his own urine in medical school.
"You do it in med school, that's what you do," Oz told Kimmel, referring to the experience.
Experts and medical school graduates have since refuted the claim, including 1986 Medical School graduate Jeremy Law, who told the DP that Penn's medical school never forced them to taste their urine.
Law added that he believes Oz talks about "controversial" subjects on his show because he needed to marry his life as an entertainer with his academic and scientific reputation, which was formed by looking at alternative approaches to cardiac care. Oz has made millions of dollars from promoting questionable products and has stopped operating on patients as of 2018.
Multiple classmates said that the notoriety that Oz gained from his television show, as well as the characteristics he exhibited as a surgeon, likely made him believe that he was qualified to work in government. To 1986 Medical School graduate James Handa, Oz does not present as the same person that he was at Penn.
"He was a good guy. I think his heart was in the right place. He was a humble guy," Handa said. "He’s just a different guy today — at least through what we see on TV and read about in the newspapers.”
Despite his present notoriety, several of Oz's classmates echoed Fisher's sentiments about Oz's medical school days, describing Oz as someone who was well-liked at school. Multiple classmates, such as 1986 Medical School graduate Scott Boden, noted that Oz was the president of the Medical School student council during his senior year.
"I would say it's consistent with his interests to make a difference, and to represent constituents and try and build consensus — but also to get stuff done," Boden said, adding that those qualities are required in a surgeon.
Boden recalled playing intramural basketball with Oz and participated in "Penn Med Spoof" together, a musical show tradition that includes a pit band and actors on stage. Oz also joined the Medical School soccer team with Handa.
Handa said his relationship with Oz "solidified early on" from being paired together for physical diagnosis practice.
"I think there definitely were people who really loved him. He's a really charismatic guy," Handa said of Oz. "If you're at a party, he would walk in, and five or 10 minutes later, everybody sort of gravitated around him listening to what he had to say."
While at Penn, Oz lived with his classmates off-campus at a house in West Philadelphia, where he threw a few parties, according to Garcia.
Handa described Oz's ability to laugh at himself as a "redeeming quality" that complemented his "strong personality" and outspokenness, which may have made him disliked by some classmates. Handa said that Oz's ability to self-deprecate was when he would say "something kind of outlandish" but admit he was wrong after those around him would point out that what he said did not make sense.
"As his missteps politically have emerged, it was just on a grander scale of the kind of misstatements he would make as a student," Handa said. "The difference is that he would laugh at himself back then."
The midterm elections will be held on Nov. 8. In recent polling, Oz has trailed Fetterman — his opponent — by a decreasing margin. The race could decide control of the U.S. Senate, which currently has 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans.