“If It Isn’t Fun.” – Freshman Year Medicine, 1944-1945
They say that a medical student’s vocabulary increases by 8,000 words during the first year alone, surely one of the lesser concerns for a budding medico. But as a freshman I was in near ecstasy, wholly focused in my studies and full of wonder. Thanks to the U.S. Navy, I was also self-sufficient, decked out in a uniform worn with pride, paid a monthly midshipman’s stipend, and stationed in the most exotic of North American cities, New Orleans.
Otherwise, it would be hard to imagine a more classic setting than ours as freshmen at Tulane. It is one of the oldest medical schools in the country, dating from the 1830s, with a long and dignified tradition of scholarship, innovative practice, and contributions to public health. One cannot imagine a more impressive initiation into medicine than to sit, as we did, in the vertiginously steep, bright, white amphitheater that occupied the upper floors of Richardson Hall and to experience the elegance of Harold Cummins’s introductory lectures in anatomy. A man of medium build, he seemed to us a giant. Impeccably dressed in detachable collar and pince- nez and a fresh white gown, he was distinguished in bearing, in speech, and in manner. His descriptions were fascinating, his insights inspiring. And we simply marveled at his multicolored chalk illustrations, composed fluently and ambidextrously. Inevitably, the class groaned in unison when at the close of each lecture he rapidly, shockingly erased these priceless works of art.
Harold Cummins made us freshman grubs feel a part of his enlightened world of scholarship and honorable tradition. He made us feel participants in a fine and useful profession. We learned effortlessly from him, though, in fact, we studied long hours. And the confidence he instilled early on provided us strength to withstand the rigors of our many other courses, as well as the brusqueness and sometimes brutality of occasional instructors who were not always so gentle. We realized how fortunate we were to be led through the maze of first-year medicine by such a master teacher — and good man.
We learned much later that we were the first freshman class ever at Tulane to take microscopic anatomy first, with gross anatomy and its dissections later. The result was our gradual acclimatization to anatomy, versus the abrupt one that had for generations shocked the sensibilities of entering freshman.
Amazingly, some segments of the first-year medical curriculum were easier than we had imagined. The discipline and precision required of quantitative analysis in college chemistry, for example, made a snap of medical biochemistry and laboratory medicine with their five percent tolerance limits.