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an online version of the magazine Fall 2004
Annals of Hopkins
 
 

Compound Bonding

By Janet Farrar Worthington

The Compound
> Don’t bother looking for the Compound—it’s not there on Broadway behind Reed Hall anymore. It was bulldozed in 1986, a relic of a different era.

They were poor and cramped, but for the hundreds of married interns and residents who lived in the apartment complex just off Broadway, those were wonderful times.

 

Let us ponder, briefly, life as we know it for many married house officers—interns and residents. You work long hours. You’re sleep-deprived. You don’t get to see your spouse and kids much. You’re relatively poor; you’re making a heck of a lot more than interns used to, but you’ve got debt out the kazoo, and you just took out a car loan. Your next-door neighbor, a lawyer the same age as your kid sister, is making three times your salary. The guy across the street has already cooked dinner, spent quality time with his kids, and mowed his yard by the time you come dragging home.

Is this progress?

Let us now consider “The Compound.” Don’t bother looking for it—it’s not there on Broadway behind Reed Hall anymore. It was bulldozed in 1986, a relic of a different era. But for three decades, this unpretentious square of 120 apartments was home for hundreds of married Hopkins interns and residents. More than that, it was an urban oasis—with a swimming pool and a big park in the center, usually full of moms, babies and toddlers—where young doctors (most of them men back then) and their families managed to live pretty well on next to nothing.

“It was a wonderful place,” recalls Richard Conti, M.D.-1960, who lived in the Compound during his internal medicine residency with his wife, Ruth, and eventually four children, from shortly after he got out of the Army in 1964 until 1968. “We really loved it. The wives always had company, and all of our children played together. All of us were poor; nobody was concerned about keeping up with the Joneses.”

“Everyone seemed to get along,” adds Ruth Conti. “I don’t think there was any pettiness at all, any of, ‘My child’s better than yours’—none of that. Nobody’s kid had to have the prettiest dresses or party shoes. We were taken care of; we didn’t worry about anything.”

“Fundamentally, it was a commune where we enjoyed good friends, good times and safety,” recalls Wilbur Mattison, M.D.-1952, who has been credited with giving the place—officially, the Broadway Garden Apartments—its nickname. Mattison boarded there with his wife, Patricia, and two small children from 1957 until 1958 during his medicine residency. “It was a very convenient way to live.”

Many Compound families forged remarkable bonds that have lasted for decades. “Our Compound neighbors have been lifelong friends,” says O’Neal Humphries, M.D.-1956, a cardiologist, who lived there with his wife, Mary, and three children from 1958 to 1960, and went on to become the dean of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. When they get together, which they do regularly, Compound alumni remember quirky things about the place—like how, because the Compound was on a hill sloping from Bond Street to Caroline Street, all of the tricycles and wagons would end up on the doorstep of the unit at the bottom of the street. “We still meet with survivors any chance we get,” says Michael Criley, who now calls Palo Verdes Estates, Calif., home.

 

*****

 

As background, you should know that all medical and surgical residents used to be, well, residents. They lived in the Hospital—under the Dome, starting out on the fourth floor and moving down a floor each year—or in the main residence hall (torn down years ago to make room for the Maumenee Building). Nobody was married. That tradition dated back to William Osler, Hopkins’ first professor of medicine, and was strictly enforced by the Medical Board.

But after World War II everything changed. Many young doctors and medical students returned to medicine after military service, married, and Hopkins adjusted its requirements—slightly—to accommodate them. Now, instead of living at the Hospital, married house officers could live within a half-mile radius of it, in three-story rowhouses that had been converted into apartments. These were not ideal. Before Dick and Ruth Conti moved into the Compound, they lived in a third-floor walkup, where the simple act of getting the kids upstairs after an outing required help, Ruth Conti recalls: “I had twins, so I used to have to run one baby up three flights of steps (while a kind neighbor watched the other baby), throw her in a playpen, run back down, and get the other baby and the stroller.”

Mattison, who now practices in Cupertino, Calif., recalls that many of these rowhouses had seen better days—one Hopkins resident was injured when he fell off the crumbling porch of his second-floor apartment—and none was air-conditioned. “The year I started my internship, in 1952, we had 14 straight days where the temperature never got below 100. We had people with heat stroke, [body] temperatures of 107, 108 degrees.” His second-story rowhouse apartment was sweltering. “We slept in wet sheets with the fan on. The Compound [where most units had a window air conditioner in one bedroom] was a great, great improvement.”

“It was a solution to a problem that exists in every teaching hospital and has never been equaled anywhere else, to my knowledge,” says Criley. From 1957 to 1960, during his medical residency, he and his wife, Mary Ellen, and son lived in the Compound. “We were paid poorly—$25 a month as interns, $166 a month as residents. Moonlighting was out of the question.” And yet: “In some ways, these were the best years of our lives.” There were “lots of babies being born, and lots of kids with minor ailments that could be managed with house calls by daddy doctors from next door, and lots of parties and barbecues.” The Compound even had its own nursery school, run by moms. And there was plenty of friendly advice: Criley remembers that “one of the wives’ suggestions for inducing labor was to sit on the dryer and turn it to spin dry.”

“There wasn’t a lot of privacy,” notes Mattison, “but everybody was pretty much in the same boat.” The camaraderie this engendered was intense. “All of the children in the Compound were about the same age, under 6,” recalls O’Neal Humphries; “this bonds the parents together.” Notes Mary Humphries: “There was always company, always someone to watch your kids, or help out in an emergency.” When her mother died, friends took care of the couple’s three children while she went out of town for the funeral. “It was just that kind of nice place.”

“The family nature of it is the thing that I recall the best,” says Dick Conti. “It was one big family down there.” At home, he notes, his colleagues “rarely talked about medicine—we had enough of it in the Hospital.”

And every Saturday, “come hell or high water,” comments Ruth Conti, a hard-core group of house officers—including her husband—played touch football at a nearby park. The group was called “The Turtle Derby All-Stars.”

 

The Compound
Scences of Compound life, from Halsted resident Bill Cornell hobnobbing at a party with a department store mannequin named Ophelia, to mugging it up for the Turtle Derby All-Stars team photo, to Michael Criley's son, Michael, making friends with another preschooler.

The enclosed park within the Compound’s walls—where, notes Criley, “lawn chairs with plastic webbing were de rigueur”—made for a nice, big backyard. There “must have been close to an acre of grassy lawn,” says Mattison, “and you could just turn the children loose and not fear, because there was no way they could get out, or anybody else could get in.”

The fence, adds Ruth Conti, wasn’t impenetrable, but that wasn’t the point: “I don’t think that it was built to keep people out. I always thought it was to keep the kids in.”

From a structural standpoint, the Compound was not as sturdy as its nickname suggests. Once, by accident, “I knocked the soap dish out of my tub,” says O’Neal Humphries. “I reached into the wall and knocked out the soap dish of the tub in the next unit. That’s how we got to know our next-door neighbors, Tom and Gene Hunt, so well.”

Mattison had a similar experience with his next-door neighbor (now a Hopkins ophthalmologist), Stuart M. Wolff, M.D.-1952. “When Stuart took a bath, you could hear him singing in the bathtub. He had a great, classical voice,” and was fond of opera arias. “One time, he pulled on the railing to get out of the bathtub, and pulled a hole into our wall, so we had a see- through area for a while in the bathroom.”

“We were working on the wards all the time, day and night,” recalls Richard Conti. “We were on call all the time, with a half-day off on Saturday or Sunday. There was nobody else taking care of those patients—we were.” But house officers weren’t glued to the patient’s bedside; if things were quiet, they could go home. If they were needed, they put on their white coats and went back across Broadway. “We took call at home, sleeping in our own beds,” says O’Neal Humphries. “We didn’t have to sleep in the hospital. I think I saw more of my kids than people who spent one night on every third night. I got home every night for supper.”

This meant a lot, says Dick Conti, now an adjunct professor of physiology at the University of Florida. “We were close to our work, and close to our families. When you’re working like that, your wife is raising your family, and she’s the one making decisions, taking care of the kids. I was working like crazy, but at least I was home for breakfast and dinner. I thought that was very important. I think that helped raise our children a little bit better.”

The Compound was unique, Dick Conti says, but then so were the Osler and Halsted services in the hospital.

“There was nothing like it anywhere in the world, in terms of the responsibility we had for the care of these patients.” There was no such thing as off-call,” adds Mattison. “If something got wrong with one of your patients, you had to go. Dr. (A. McGehee) Harvey used to tell the house staff, ‘You are the patient’s doctor. You have all the rights and privileges that go with that, but also all the responsibility. If something goes wrong, the nurses are going to call you.’ You were it.”

To Mattison, “the most astounding thing of all was how you could live there with no income.” Between what he made as a house officer and later as a hematology fellow (with a slight increase in salary) “and selling blood at the blood bank, that was income. Yet you were able to live, and finish your education and training without any debt, which in today’s world is unusual.”

“We had no money,” says Ruth

Conti, “and I have nothing but happy memories.”


Scenes of Compound life, from Halsted resident Bill Cornell hobnobbing at a party with a department store mannequin named Ophelia, to mugging it up for the Turtle Derby All-Stars team photo, to Michael Criley’s son, Michael, making friends with another preschooler.

 
 
 
 
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