- Historic Sites
HOW A FARSIGHTED QUAKER MERCHANT AND FOUR GREAT DOCTORS BROUGHT FORTH, WITH MADDENING SLOWNESS, ONE OF THE FINEST MEDICAL CENTERS IN THE WORLD
February 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 2
To prepare the best possible curriculum President Gilman sent out a questionnaire, describing the proposed courses, to various medical scholars in both the United States and Great Britain. To his delight the response was highly complimentary. But then everyone began to worry about how they would ever get enough qualified applicants to make the whole project worthwhile. They needn’t have. By the time this new branch of the university opened in October, 1893, eighteen students had enrolled —fifteen men and three women—although they were outnumbered by their teachers. Five were graduates of Johns Hopkins University, having been well prepared by the new premedical course. There were even an additional forty-odd physicians doing graduate work. Among the courses studied that first year were osteology, histology, physiological chemistry, and, of course, anatomy. The anatomy professor, Franklin P. Mall, was inclined to let the students learn by trial and error rather than by lecture, so he would give each a knife and then leave the room. This at first was a bit frustrating for the students. He was just as eccentric when examination time came, as he disliked this sort of formality; so he would simply take each student for a walk in the park, and after discussing such totally irrelevant topics as Paris fashions, he would suddenly pull a fragment of bone out of his pocket and demand: “What is this?” Though they all guessed wrong—it was a turtle bone—he passed them.
Mall had a problem at first getting sufficient cadavers, so the dissection part of the anatomy course was postponed until November. When bodies became more plentiful, Mall had a large icebox built, embalmed the bodies with carbolic acid, and stuck them away. But a larger problem awaited him: when classes began, he spied across the dissecting room one day a lovely young woman named Mabel Glover, a Wellesley graduate and one of the three female students in the class. By spring they were engaged, leading Osler to comment wryly when speaking about Hopkins to the Harvard Medical Alumni Association that June: “When I tell you that 331/3% of the lady students admitted to the first year of the Medical Faculty of the Johns Hopkins University are, at the end of one short session, to be married, then you will understand why I saw that co-education is a failure. If we lose 331/3% at the end of the first session where will the class of lady students be at the end of the fourth?” (Some time later he was appalled to learn that another of those first lady students had dropped out after her conversion to Christian Science.)
Meanwhile hospital business went on as usual. While awaiting the arrival of the first medical-school graduates, the house staff positions were filled by graduates of other institutions. Under the supervision of the four chiefs (Halsted had been appointed associate professor of surgery in October, 1889, and then promoted to full professor in 1892) the students were allowed to come directly into the wards to observe those diseases about which they had been lectured. Once again this was an exciting innovation, earning Hopkins its reputation as the first teaching hospital in America. As the Flexners put it in their biography of Welch, at last “laboratories took the place of the lectures traditional in American medical schools—the hospital patient was nature’s laboratory—and experiments the place of precepts. … Almost immediately the young men and women began to taste the joys of self-training, because so much of their time was placed at their own disposal and they were so closely in contact with their professors.”
Welch, Osler, and Halsted, because of their relative youth, were quickly adopted by the staff doctors as friends as well as teachers and dubbed “Popsy,” “the Chief,” and “the Professor,” respectively. The genial Welch, as dean of the medical school, was caught up more in administration than in clinical work but did manage to keep up his lectures in pathology; he was enormously proud of Halsted and wrote to a friend: “The number of patients surpasses all anticipations and Halsted (popularly known in hospital circles as Jack the Ripper) does nothing but operate the whole forenoon and it must be admitted with brilliant results.” Welch himself was making quite a name for Hopkins, for his reputation as an outstanding pathologist had spread to Europe. While attending an international conference in Berlin in 1890 he had been voted an honorary president of the pathological section, and now doctors from all over the East were coming to do research in Welch’s laboratory, among them Major Walter Reed. A further accolade that demonstrated Baltimore’s acceptance of Welch was his election in 1891 to the presidency of the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland, the elite society of the state’s physicians.
Welch’s original faith in Halsted was more than justified. Now an aloof, reserved man, the “Professor” discouraged, by his formal, austere presence and caustic wit, most associates from becoming intimate, but as a surgeon he drew enormous attention at home and from abroad to his teaching and operative clinics. His greatest pleasure was training surgeons; and realizing that the best way to teach them was to show them, he would perform operations before their eyes on his old wooden operating table, left over from the Franco-Prussian War, with its deep trough and drainage hole. He was always inventing ways to ease the surgeon’s task; when a nurse complained of a severe rash on her hands and arms after scrubbing in carbolic acid, he asked the Goodyear Rubber Company to make two pairs of rubber gloves for him, as thin as possible. No one had ever thought of such a thing.