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Jockeying for the finish line at the Turtle Derby, now in its 75th year. (Photo: Ron Dumas)
Forget the Blue Jays, forget the Orioles. Bring in the turtles.

At half past noon on Friday, May 19, 40 green, four-legged athletes will plod out to the edge of a circle, cheered on by rowdy crowds of faculty, staff and students gathered in the courtyard outside the Preclinical Teaching Building.

It’s the annual Turtle Derby, one of the School of Medicine’s most hotly contested sporting events. This year marks its 75th anniversary.

It takes a sort of inspired vision to look at a group of turtles and think about a horse race, yet that is precisely what happened at Hopkins 75 years ago this month. Legend has it that in 1931, gynecologist Edward Kelly borrowed 40 turtles—the personal pets of “Colonel” Benjamin Frisby, the Hospital’s doorman from 1889 to 1933—that lived in a pen on the Broadway side of the Hospital.


On Your Marks…The Turtle Derby, sometime in the 1970s.


Kelly had noticed the turtles didn’t relish the heat of the day. One of the few ways you could get them to pick up their pace was to put them directly into the sunlight while making certain there was a shady area close by. Invariably, the creatures would beat it for the cool shadows. What a great way, Kelly thought, to establish a feeling of fellowship between the house staff and the faculty.

Suddenly the turtles weren’t in pens, but in paddocks so bettors could look them over. Like race horses at Pimlico, they took on fancy names. A betting frenzy ensued.

Seventy-five years later, the tradition continues, as does the horseracing analogy. The Turtle Derby is always held the day before the running of the Preakness Stakes.

This year, there’ll be magicians, face painters, clowns, skits and a DJ, says first-year med student Roni Prucz, who, with classmates Kristin Kan, Justin Yang and Steven Chen, is organizing the 2006 Turtle Derby. Collectors-edition T-shirts, decorated with images from previous Derbies, will be on sale from May 4 to May 18 in PCTB and the Children’s Center. All donations and winnings benefit Child Life and the Walter F. Perkins Daycare Center.

Lydia Levis Bloch and Janet Farrar Worthington

 

 

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