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an online version of the magazine Winter 2005
Annals of Hopkins

Fast Times

On Your Marks... The Derby, sometime in the 1970s
> On Your Marks... The Derby, sometime in the 1970s
By Janet Farrar Worthington

For 75 years, a herd of turtles lumbering across a makeshift racecource has served as Johns Hopkins' hottest springtime draw.


It 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 May.

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 the faculty.

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.
> 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 rounds.

“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 it.

• 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 into slugs.

• DON'T GIVE THE ATHLETES PERFORMANCE-ALTERING DRUGS. Turtles 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 circus.”

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.

 The House that Sol Built
 Time Clocks in the Trenches
 Beyond the Abyss
 The Sum of All Fears
 Circling the Dome
 Medical Rounds
 Bench Press
 Annals of Hopkins
 Learning Curve
Johns Hopkins Medicine

© The Johns Hopkins University 2006