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Fall 2012

The Dark, Looming Structure That Became Home

By: E. Hunter Wilson '53
Date: September 1, 2012

E. Hunter Wilson around the time he entered medical school, in 1949.
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E. Hunter Wilson around the time he entered medical school, in 1949.

Dusk was just settling in over Baltimore on October 1, 1949, the evening I first viewed the Johns Hopkins Hospital. An hour earlier my two new roommates, Bob Welch and Tom Langfitt, and I, had checked into our second-floor rooms in the row house at 726 North Broadway. Fresh from college and feeling fortunate to have been accepted to Hopkins Medical School, we’d set out to explore the neighborhood.

We found sustenance just down the street at a well-kept Greek restaurant called Gounari’s. Then, continuing our stroll, we walked southward along Broadway, crossing Monument Street. And there, taking up the east side of the whole next block, loomed the elongated mass that was the hospital.

None of us had seen this icon of American medicine before, but in the increasing darkness of evening, my own silent appraisal of its shaded Victorian bulk and ragged red brick outline was one of disappointment and not a little apprehension. I suppose I had expected a brighter and more modern place. This dark, looming structure with its untidy silhouette did not seem to support its reputation. 

There were few people on the streets at that hour, I remember, but approaching us was an elderly couple leaning on each other for support. They were poorly dressed, smallish in stature, and unsteady. The man had a white bloodstained bandage wrapped over his head. The two of them had been praying together in a church a few blocks away, they told us, when a gang of youths had entered, struck him on the head, snatched the woman’s purse, and fled. Now, with a handkerchief over the man’s bleeding wound, they were looking for the hospital emergency room. We quickly searched it out for them and led them inside, where they were promptly attended to. I remember thinking this was not a good omen for the future. The scene was too much like Dickens to contemplate spending the next four years of my life here.

I smile now when I think back on that day 63 years ago. Little could I conjure that my medical school experiences would shape the rest of my life and that the elongated outline of the Johns Hopkins Hospital would become for me a kind of mental mecca. Only later would it dawn on me that the hospital stood exactly where it belonged in the city, at a place where it could do the most good for the people who needed it the most, and where the proximity and volume of disease were at their highest for study and treatment.

In those years, the hospital’s main entrance, with its classic lobby and dramatic 10-foot marble statue of Christ, was located on Broadway. A linear wing running east along Monument Street housed semiprivate and indigent medical and surgical beds, the obstetrical and gynecological wards, classrooms, and outpatient clinics. By nature of its reputation, Hopkins had attracted faculty of outstanding repute and capabilities, each with a particular method of teaching and incidental eccentricities. I soon came to realize that it was the excellence of this faculty that gave the hospital its honored place in medicine.

Our introductory lecture to anat­omy was given by Dr. Alan Graflin, one of the most erudite speakers to face any unsophisticated entering class. He let it be known forthwith that he did not suffer slackers gladly. I still remember his declaration that “you will not be spoon-fed at Hopkins. You’ll have guides but they’ll just tell you where to dig. Only by digging hard will you learn—and remember to dig deeply! For God’s sake, be a doctor. Don’t be a jerk!”

Another professor who remains unforgettable is the pathologist Dr. Arnold Rich. Although gravid, detached, and soft-spoken, he never raised his voice because he was used to having the last word about any unsolved illness or death. Dr. Rich used the Socratic method of lecturing and it was unnerving to be called upon to stand and answer a question such as “Dr. Herman, what is life?” In discussing why a patient had died he always selected the most intricate cases. It was said of him that he could see past life into death and vice versa.

Exchanges between Dr. Rich and our renowned professor of medicine Dr. A. McGehee Harvey as to the nature and cause of death of undiagnosed patients took place weekly at the Clinical Pathological Conferences. Looked upon as medical jousting events, these CPCs were famous throughout the city and filled the hospital lecture hall. For us they were the high point of the medical week. Dr. Harvey, of serious mien and a bit forbidding, seemed to know everything. With his diagnostic acumen and legendary perception of disease processes, he became for many of us a kind of metaphor for medicine itself.

At length, our class of 75 students—70 men, five women—began to feel like a family. Meanwhile, the hospital became some kind of home. As we learned within this framework, we also experienced some dramatic moments. In our second year, when we had advanced to animal surgery and anesthesiology, Dr. Robert Welch, a towering figure, was so robust and healthy he felt certain the inhalation of ether couldn’t knock him out. To test his theory, Tom Langfitt and I took an ether cone from animal surgery and challenged him to let us prove it. Standing in Dr. Welch’s room we placed the ether cone over his nose and mouth, and in about two minutes he collapsed unconscious on the floor. Because of his size, we had great trouble moving him out to give him artificial respiration. Fortunately, he was soon on his feet, with his brain clearly unharmed. Even today he is an associate professor emeritus of ophthalmology at Hopkins and a noted retinal specialist. 

In our fourth year we were admitted to the wards, and after that, we almost never left the hospital. Under the tutelage of a distinguished group of Baltimore doctors who were well aware of their status in holding admitting privileges to Hopkins, we were now allowed to participate in caring for their private patients. With three or four of us assigned to each, these physicians watched over our shoulders in daily rounds as they showed us which clinical signs to look for in making proper diagnoses and managing patients. We learned to draw blood and perform daily physical exams, urinanalyses, EKGs, stool exams, and blood counts. And occasionally to our delight, we made unexpected diagnoses. Our days and nights were full.

And still we found time for humor. The high point for revelry took place at the end of each year when the fraternity known as the Pithotomy Club staged an irreverent satire parodying faculty foibles. This production of repartee and song got fairly raunchy at times and could produce unfortunate results. On one occasion, after a flowery introduction purporting to portray one of the distinguished and flashier surgeons, the curtains parted and standing on stage in full form was the rear end of a donkey. We all found this enormously funny, but the professor himself, who took himself quite seriously, failed to see the humor. He bellowed, rose from his seat in the front row and stormed out, never to return.

None of this outrageous behavior could have happened, of course, without the familiarity and respect we developed for our professors, many of whom were world famous for medical discoveries and innovations in treating disease. Day by day, along the bustling corridors of the hospital, in its ORs, lecture halls, and classrooms, we felt the uplifting energy and wisdom of those teachers. In the end, so strong were the ties I formed to the Johns Hopkins Hospital that they remained unbroken until my retirement. During 40 years of practice as a Baltimore internist, I myself became one of those community physicians who looked over Hopkins medical students’ shoulders as they learned. To have been part of that family and this place for so long was a gift.

E. Hunter Wilson practiced internal medicine in Baltimore for 40 years. He has written two novels: In My Father’s House (Johns Hopkins Press, 1989), and The Gemini Mutation (I. Universe Press, 2008). *