On Your Marks... The Derby, sometime
in the 1970s
For 75 years, a herd of turtles lumbering
across a makeshift racecource has served as Johns Hopkins'
hottest springtime draw.
takes a certain inspired vision to look at a group
of turtles and to think:
“I wonder how fast these suckers can go?” And, “Wouldn't it be a hoot to race
them?” And yet, this is precisely what happened at Hopkins 75 years ago this
In 1931, the 40 turtles—the personal pets of “Colonel” Benjamin
Frisby, the Hospital's doorman from 1889 to 1933—lived
in a pen on the Broadway side of the Hospital. They
had become a kind of campus fixture. But on that memorable
day, gynecologist Edward Kelly, who'd been eyeing the
herd, asked to borrow them for a few hours. And on
the spot, he created the Hospital's first Turtle Derby.
Kelly had noticed that turtles didn't relish the heat
of the day. One of the few ways you could get them
to pick up their pace, in fact, 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. And then and there, you'd
have a race. What a great way, Kelly thought, to establish
a feeling of fellowship between the house staff and
Suddenly, the turtles weren't in pens, but in paddocks
so bettors could look them over. Their identities took
on fancy names of distinguished parentage. Departments
got together to sponsor their favorite racers, and
a purse, ante upped by enthusiastic backers, went to
the winner—that year, officially recorded as Sir Walter.
Leftover cash paid for a rollicking party afterward
in a nearby rowhouse.
The event became an instant classic. Held every May
on the day before the Preakness, the Turtle Derby drew
doctors, nurses, patients and even families in the
neighborhood to the racing course on the administration
tennis courts next to the hospital. Everybody wanted
a ringside view of the shellbacks lumbering their way
from the hand-drawn chalk circle in the middle of the
courts out to the perimeter.
The equestrian theme prevailed: Wilbur Mattison (M.D.
'52), who served as master of ceremonies one year (and
came dressed as Davy Crockett), recalls a turtle named “Desperation
out of Unhappy Marriage by Philandering Husband.”
“We really took over the Hospital,” says Henry M.
Seidel, (M.D. '46), who was in charge of the derby
in 1950, when he was chief resident in pediatrics.
For days before the race, posters lined the corridors
and advertisements would suddenly appear during departmental
rounds. There was a band made up of musically inclined
interns and residents, and send-ups of faculty members
featured costumes, and “jockeys” in their silks.
|> Charles Tesar, the research director in Urology from 1947 to 1974, was famous for his Turtle Derby art.
“It was the greatest fun of all,” recalls Emily Haller,
a retired faculty gyn/ob specialist, who took part
in the Turtle Derby during the early 1950s, when she
and her husband, Alex Haller (M.D. '51) were both residents.
Haller even posed anonymously for one of the Derby
advertisements in an X-ray with a turtle on her abdomen.
The film was slipped in with others being shown during
“We had a ball,” Seidel reminisces, although he admits
that at times residents may have exercised a certain
lack of judgment. As a result, Turtle Derby planners
learned some formative lessons:
• DON'T HIRE AN EXOTIC DANCER.
Once, in the early
1950s, house officers were busily negotiating with
the agent of burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee to bring
her in for the celebration. When Hospital President
Russell Nelson got wind of the plan, he squelched
• YOU CAN LEAD A TURTLE TO THE
RACETRACK, BUT YOU CAN'T MAKE HIM GO. Foul
weather one year forced the Derby indoors, into the
Meyer gym, which was sweltering. The turtles turned
• DON'T GIVE THE ATHLETES PERFORMANCE-ALTERING
do not tolerate sedatives well, residents in the early
1950s found out. “That year,” recalls a still-shocked
Henry Seidel, “a patient on the Marburg unit decided
he was going to run his own pet turtle in the race.
This was not your basic Frisby box turtle, mind you.
It was a “big, huge, monster.” Deciding this new entry
might make for an uneven race, the residents determined
to even the playing field by giving the jumbo terrapin
an injection of paraldehyde, a favorite sedative of
the day. Unfortunately, the pharmacology of this particular
drug in turtles had never been well described. “It
slowed him down,” Seidel says sadly, “way down. He
died.” To their credit, the residents went to the patient
and confessed their crime—and the man, who “was extremely
gracious,” forgave them.
Despite such mishaps, Seidel says the Turtle Derby
tied the Hospital together, because everyone could
participate. It was always a big community effort. “Try
to imagine a long hospital corridor lined with posters
about turtles,” Seidel muses, “funny stuff, good stuff,
but always respectful.” Now 83, Seidel says one of
his favorite keepsakes is an old cover of Hopkins Magazine,
with his 2-year-old son sitting on his haunches, looking
at a turtle.
“It was indeed a family affair,” agrees Alex Haller,
a retired Hopkins pediatric surgeon who trained here
in the years when residents had little money, but got
free food. “We'd bring our families to the cafeteria
and load up our trays. All of us lived within walking
distance of the Hospital. There was a camaraderie,
and a closeness to our lives. Our children were very
young—2, 3, 4 years old. They thought it was a great
Despite it all, in 1977 the Turtle Derby fizzled, “a
victim of house staff apathy,” says Robert Harrell
(M.D. '80), a Duke internist who was in his first year
at the School of Medicine at that point. It took just
two years, though, for it to be reinstated. By 1979,
Seidel was firmly in place as the School of Medicine's
dean of students, and to him, spring remained incomplete
on the East Baltimore campus without the Turtle Derby.
Seidel convinced the Pithotomy Club to revive the derby
as a fund-raiser. All of Hopkins responded. Teams sponsored
more than 100 turtles that year and “snapped” up hundreds
of T-shirts and buttons for the event. Today the Derby's
fate seems safe. Every spring, the boisterous race
of the tortoises continues to draw faculty, house staff,
employees and their families to the courtyard outside
the Preclinical Teaching Building. These days, instead
of going to the backers of the speediest turtle, the
purse goes to two worthwhile causes: the Child Life
Program at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, and the
Hospital-sponsored Perkins Day Care Center.