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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 45.3 (2002) 377-394

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Vignettes of Medical School During the War, 1942-1945

Barbara Young


IN JUNE 1942, THE TRAIN FROM ILLINOIS bore me east to Baltimore to medical school. Glimpses of pale blue water appeared on the left; then a bridge across a river as broad as the Mississippi but ethereally beautiful, not muddy brown. The solid wall of bright green forest on either side of the track occasionally broke to reveal the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. We were getting closer.

I had to remind myself that I was going into a world that looked forward to my coming. Dr. Jean, a Hopkins graduate at the University of Iowa, had been friendly: "They want you. The only reason I am seeing you is to be sure you are in good health and can afford to come." The very day I graduated from college I had received a letter telling me that I had been given a half-tuition scholarship. But what would the other students be like? Would they look down on me because of my naiveté and my homemade clothes? Coming from eastern schools, I was sure they would all be smarter than I was and better prepared. My anxiety mounted as the distance narrowed.

Baltimore was unbearably hot. Clusters of people sat on the marble steps of painted-red brick houses, fanning themselves. The taxi pulled up to a side door. "Here we are, 800 North Broadway."

The lock clicked, and the door opened wide to a small dark hall with stairs going up and down. I was greeted by an energetic girl with sandy curly hair. "I'm Doris. First year, too." She shouted up to the third floor, "Sally, it's Barbara Young!" [End Page 377]

As quick as that, I was at ease in the house which would be my home for three years. Sally Cornell, with the sophistication of a third-year student, showed me around and disappeared. She had shepherded me by letter from Illinois. Now I would join my peers (Fig. 1).

My little room had one window, which faced south. Despite the incredible heat, there was a slight stirring of air coming up from the Bay. Though my room was about the size of a nun's cell, the sunlight, the air, the compound of street and harbor smells pouring through the window made my room an alive and happy place. Just enough space for the essentials: a single bed, a desk, a small bookcase, and one huge ancient reclining Morris chair. It took some maneuvering to make room to play the cello, so that my bow didn't bang into something at one end of the stroke or the other. Situated on the passageway to the bathroom, I had met everyone in the house before dinner. The older students were easy to identify by their self-confidence, but they were down-to-earth and genuinely friendly. I need never have worried.

Friday morning, 26 June 1942, our class of almost 80 students assembled to be addressed by Dean Alan Chesney. His greeting to us was warm, but his words were grave. Because of the urgent need for doctors in the war effort, our class was beginning in June instead of September. By working steadily summer and winter, we would be able to cover the four academic years in three. We could look forward to a vacation at Christmas and a week in February between our [End Page 378] first and second years. We first-year students would be required to serve as fire watchers for the school and hospital. There was a clear possibility that most of the men would be taken into the Army or the Navy. Their school expenses would be paid. As soon as their nine-month internships were completed, they would enter active service. He ended with the words of encouragement, "We want you all to graduate. We hope and expect that you will. I wish you well."

The war was always with us...


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