After growing up in New York, Eli went to Yale, where he majored in music theory. Although already an accomplished tuba player, Eli wished to serve people directly, and in his sophomore year started taking premedical courses. Perhaps the prospect of counting rests in an orchestra for much of his professional life helped this decision. But his interests in music were both in performance and in critical analysis, and the latter seemed to fit well with a career in science. His CV, incidentally, includes several publications on the development of jazz piano style. Eli graduated from Yale Medical School in 1966, and spent another year there as a house officer in internal medicine.
His next two years were spent in the Peace Corps, working in rural West Africa