Medical School and My Discovery of Anesthesia



Medical School and My Discovery of Anesthesia





Making Adobes in Baja California

At the University of Illinois, I had attended the Unitarian Church. In my senior year, I applied for one of their summer outreach programs: I would assist building a tuberculosis sanitarium in Mexico. I included this in my application to Northwestern Medical School, not expecting it to be consequential. However, I later learned that Northwestern Medical School had a strong international outreach program for underserved populations. Perhaps my including this tipped the scales for my admission.

Once admitted to medical school, I found myself in the unusual position of not needing to study in the Summer of 1947. Several Unitarian friends and I traveled to Ejido el Porvenir, a small village in Baja, California, near Ensenada. We lived in a local schoolhouse. Together, we fabricated adobes (bricks made from mud, straw, and sun) using large wooden forms that probably had existed for decades. The adobes were large (1 foot by 2 ft by 8 in) and heavy. The houses in Ensenada were all made from such adobes. Each day we made a hundred or more of these. We were guided by the local residents and led by one of the elders, an avuncular man named Gambino.

I missed the opportunity to supplement my limited language skills that summer. I could have and should have learned Spanish. Unfortunately, everyone spoke English. I hadn’t the will or foresight to insist upon speaking Spanish. The only expression I learned (or remember) is “Andalez, andalez, rapido, rapido,” all with a smile. No one ever translated “Andalez, andalez, rapido, rapido,” but surely it means “Let’s go, let’s go, quickly, quickly!”

Seth Arnold was one of my closer friends that summer. We climbed a local mountain and got lost on our return. We carried too little water, and sin agua we had put ourselves at risk. As we struggled back, we came upon abandoned farm. We found a well with water, in which a dead rat floated. We made it back without water.

At the end of the summer, the Unitarian Church rewarded us with a tour of Guadalajara and Mexico City. I’ve not forgotten my introduction to wonderful
angry murals by Diego Rivera in Guadalajara. I bought my sophisticated mother a big bright red leather purse. She never used it. In retrospect, I shouldn’t be surprised. A bright red purse? Good grief! What was I thinking?

Two decades later I returned to Ejido el Porvenir with my family at the time. Gambino was there and so was the building. However, it was no longer a sanitarium. Up to the 1940s, tuberculosis was a terrible scourge, especially for the poor and malnourished. With the development of streptomycin and the 1946 to 1947 proof that it cured tuberculosis—in the first ever randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study—the need for a sanitarium disappeared. It didn’t matter to me. I’d had a wonderful summer making friends. I also cultivated a serious tan that should have been good for several melanomas in later life.


My First Year in Medical School

At the start of my first year of medical school, I joined a fraternity, Phi Rho Sigma. Membership in Phi Rho had several benefits, including social contacts, a library, and the support of those in the fraternity. I had a “big brother,” Tom Upton, who was to look out for me, protect me, and guide me. One of his first acts was to steal my girlfriend, Anne, a lovely red-headed freshman, and marry her. They remain married today. He told me that in stealing Anne and marrying her he did me a favor. That’s what he told me. I believed him then and still do.

Tom did other good things for me. He recruited me into a barbershop quartet. I could sing well enough, but I read music indifferently. That relegated me to second tenor, the guy who carries the tune because he can’t do anything else. Beyond baritone Tom, the other singers were Chuck Lamdin and Ford van Hagen. Chuck was a perfect top tenor. He later became a naval surgeon, probably based on skills other than singing. Ford was the most musically gifted. In addition to singing bass, Ford could write music and lyrics. He composed the lyrics for at least two shows for returning Northwestern alumni, shows in which I sang. In one of these, Ford composed lyrics to be sung to the tune of the quartet from Rigoletto. I gave it my best barbershop voice. My three companions said no, it wouldn’t do. It didn’t sound like the quartet from any opera. I reached into my memory and belted out my best imitation of a tenor opera singer, dazzling my three friends and me. My performance amazed my mother, who wondered if it really was my voice. To this day I can still sing this odd version of the quartet from Rigoletto. Sadly, Ford later took his life. His loss still brings me sadness. Oh willow, titwillow, titwillow.


My first year at Northwestern passed easily, in part because my premedical courses in biochemistry gave me a leg up. However, courses that required memorization, like anatomy, were a challenge. Sometimes I would resort to reason, sometimes the wrong reason.

The brilliant tyrant, Loyal Davis, the Chair of Surgery, taught the freshman fall course in correlative anatomy. The final examination in December or January consisted of a single question:


A boy dove into Lake Michigan. When he rose to the surface, he could not move his lower or upper extremities. What caused this?

This was a simple question with a simple answer:

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May 24, 2022 | Posted by in ANESTHESIA | Comments Off on Medical School and My Discovery of Anesthesia
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