University of Minnesota

“If It Isn’t Fun.” – Letters Home from Medical School

March 23, 1945

Dear Folks:

What a terrible birthday I had yesterday, rocked by a biochemistry test in which I knew zip about two out of the seven questions.

Today, a visit downtown to Charity Hospital for demonstrations of neuropsychiatric in-patients was exciting for us sophomores. We saw a case of bilateral blindness in half of each visual field, called — get ready — homonymous hemianopsia, due to a cerebral ischemic attack. We saw a case of chorea with mental deterioration in a poor kid who looked exactly like Mortimer Snerd. Then there was a negro woman who had become acutely psychotic and hysterical when her husband left for the Navy. We saw a 13-year old boy losing his sensation and vision with MS, which is rare at that age and generally uncommon in the south. Then, there were numerous cases of paralysis, mostly luetic. We have to locate the lesion in the central nervous system from the symptoms and signs, and know something about its prognosis. More later.

Anatomic Adaptations

Carriage House: 1572 Henry Clay Ave.

April 16

I messed up on a quiz in gross anatomy but I should do better when I get over my fear of The Bull, Prof. Wilbur Smith. In physiology so far I’ve had to kill two frogs, a cat, and a dog. The cat was so pretty that it hurt terribly to kill it. First, we anesthetized her, then operated to expose a large nerve in the leg, and attached threads from a leg muscle to a revolving graph. Then we inserted a respirator into the trachea and cut off the head and applied electrical stimuli to the nerve and recorded numerous  reflexes for a decerebrate animal (with no brain).

We truly work hard in gross anatomy, meeting with “Mr. Morse,” our cadaver, every morning at 11:00, with all windows closed to prevent him drying out. You think that doesn’t get rough?

We try to stay relaxed to ward off the intensity of the anatomy grind. In fact, the sophomores are amazed and mortified at the way we are accomplishing gross anatomy without tearing our hair out and without the universal mortal fear of “The Bull.” This is mainly due to our taking the course later, rather than right out of the stalls in freshman year. The guys are ribbing me, nevertheless, about my voice rising and cracking and my hands shaking when I got my first question from him in an oral quiz. I expect that we’ll all be slap-happy before long.

Working over our cadaver hasn’t phased me from the first. Now, cleaning fat from under my nails before eating, and doctoring “cadaver itch” (presumably from formaldehyde) is old stuff.


In physiology yesterday, four of us conducted an assigned experiment on a rabbit: “an anesthetist, a surgeon, an electrophysiologist, and a supervisor” to take notes. I drew surgeon and was pleased to be the only one whose rabbit survived the experiment till its planned termination. First, as surgeon, I had to locate a nerve the size of a size 50 thread running along the internal carotid artery in the neck and ligate it. Then we stimulated it with electrical impulses. The nerve is in the sympathetic system (the one that over-functions when you are afraid) and we could see the pupils dilate and the small vessels in the ear blanch. Then we painted the nerve ganglion with nicotine and later tested effects of other drugs. I then isolated both sciatic nerves, about the size of a pencil lead in the rabbit, finding them in a couple of minutes, after which we stimulated them similarly. I then trephined the skull and opened the dura, where we stimulated areas of the cortex to map out representation of the limbs, toes, etc. Lastly, we injected strychnine into the brain tissue and followed the typical course of Jacksonian seizures — ending, of course, in the death of poor bunny.

Drop outs

July 4

At the end of the first big year of medical school it is hard to keep from slacking off even though the work gets harder. The whole class is restless. The ones who would drop out do so now in a steady stream, for whatever reason of illness, neurosis, or failure. We’ve lost eight Navy boys and the same number of civvies and girls.

August 2

They’ve got us going good in gross anatomy now, with classes and labs and quizzes daily. The Bull asked me a question directly this morning when I was still half asleep. I couldn’t answer his question despite having answered it to my lab partner just 20 minutes before! Gad!

I took my first vacation in some years in 1945 during the short hiatus between first and second year medicine, returning to a favorite nostalgic place, Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. The train ride was slow and smoky from New Orleans to Asheville in the late August heat. I was dressed in a summer tan uniform and sweating profusely. It turned V-J Day, August 14, as we rolled through Alabama and Georgia. Crowds went wild in every hamlet along the route, our engineer exuberantly working the engine’s steam whistle. As the only serviceman on our rail car, I was treated as a returning hero (all the way from the wars of gross anatomy and the fleshpots of the French Quarter!)

Once arrived in the mountains, I kept up my regular correspondence home.


August 22 Colonial Hotel, Lake Junaluska

Dear Folks:

I was tickled to see a reference to Dad’s cousin, Thomas Magath of Mayo’s, in a very interesting book on pathologists I’m reading here. I hope I inherit just a touch of his ability.

I am now all wrapped up in “The Story of Medicine.” The Egyptian and Greek periods are particularly interesting and seem closely related to myth and magic. The author shows where a number of “fables” in The Bible are apparently taken directly from magical writings of early medicine.

Love, H. Jr.

The War is Over and Reality Sets In

September 4

You’ll probably see it in the newspaper; it looks as if we’ll all be mustered out of the service just after Christmas or in the first of the new year. I need your help to make an accounting of what I have in the bank and of how many war bonds are accumulated. I should be comfortable till the end of this academic year but I fear trouble after that. I’m concerned particularly that I won’t have time to work for room and board after junior year commences. Since my academic standing is so good, I expect I’ll have to work doubly hard to keep it there. But so far things have gone so well that I feel under a lucky star. So don’t worry. I don’t.

Come to think of it, losing the “independence” of Navy support sinks any chance that I might be able to get married in the foreseeable future, doesn’t it?

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