University of Minnesota

“If It Isn’t Fun.” – Transition Europa-Minnesota

When our migration from Europe was accomplished, in mid-June of 1953, I reported unannounced to the university office from whence my cabled appointment had come, that of Cecil J. Watson, chief of medicine at University of Minnesota Hospitals. Walking into the anteroom, I encountered Paul Frick, Watson’s chief resident, and after introducing myself asked if I might pop in, report for duty, and give a quick greeting to the chief. In our triangular positions, Frick was looking directly at Watson, who was out of my view around the corner, and Frick was hesitating, clearly getting some sort of negative signals from the Master himself. I simply moved forward and rounded the corner with a big smile and my hand proffered. “C.J.” had no recourse but to be perfectly gracious. We exchanged a few words and my fellowship in medicine was launched.

Only there was a big surprise. I was not to be at University Hospitals after all, as expected, but rather was assigned to the Veterans Administration Hospital. Knowing nothing about such an academic farm system, or the stellar reputation of that VA center, I was disappointed. But from the first evening that I reported to the VA, where I was welcomed by the internist-on-call, chief resident Neal Gault, I was disabused of any idea that I had been short-changed. I soon learned that the intensity of scholarship there had no peer, and that the gentlemanly support and thoughtful pedagogy, the contemplative pace and absence of competitive gameplaying at the VA, created a superior learning and social ambience. We settled in rapidly and happily.

In my files still are carbon copies of hospital discharge summaries that I wrote on the hundreds of patients I cared for at the VA Hospital between 1953 and 1955. Now I recall only a train of faceless, aging veterans, many from World War I, but a growing number from World War II, a scattering of young fellows from the Korean conflict, and even an occasional wizened old jewel from the Spanish-American War.

A Fast Start — Not!

Contrary to my customary “fast start,” that is, some fortuitous happening that built a legend for me early on, I got off on the wrong foot immediately with the chief of infectious disease and director of VA Hospital laboratories, Wendell Hall. While he was leading a tour of first-year residents through the ramshackle Quonsets that housed his clinical laboratories, I, for no legitimate reason, felt compelled to drop the name of my father’s double-first cousin, Thomas Magath, formerly chief of laboratories at the Mayo Clinic. Unbeknown to me, Dr. Magath headed the team of consultants that evaluated all VA hospital system laboratories and that had only recently inspected the labs we were visiting this very day. It turned out that Cousin Tom had the bad judgment to don his Navy commodore’s uniform, resplendent with campaign ribbons, plus uniform white gloves, for his inspection of Dr. Hall’s humble facilities. Worse, he had actually used his gloves in the traditional Navy fashion — to detect dust — and the Minneapolis VA labs had not fared well in his evaluation.

Now, years later, I conclude that the world would be better off if all name-dropping were received as icily as mine was that day. It’s curative, mostly.

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