David Sowby B.A. (1944), M.D., Toronto, (1951)
Memories of two medical schools 1944-1951
It had always been assumed by my family that I would go to Oxford in order to become a doctor. In 1944 the standards for entry into the Oxford medical school were very high. Without honours in the Higher Certificate - which I didn't have - one had to go to Oxford to take the special entry exam. This consisted of papers in Physics, Inorganic and Organic Chemistry, and Biology, with practicals in each. My schoolteachers thought that they could coach me to the required level, and so began an intensive course of special instruction, but it wasn't enough.
I travelled to Oxford in March 1944, at a time, just before the invasion of Europe, when even a British passport holder had to get a visa to enter Britain. One wore a white bow tie for the exam, and I had a devil of a time wrestling with the wretched thing before I finally subdued it. The written exams were held in the Ashmolean, a great Victorian pile. Shortly after I returned home we heard that I had not been successful, which meant that Plan B had to be put into operation. Plan B was for me to do medicine at Trinity. By now it was too late for me to sit Trinity Entrance, and the only way the College would accept me was if I passed the Junior Freshman exam, which I duly did.
I wasn't quite eighteen when I entered Trinity for the pre-medical year, in the autumn of 1944. During that year we had lectures and practicals in physics, chemistry, zoology and botany. I was glad to have the opportunity to augment my knowledge of physics and chemistry. Whether it was because I was older, or because the subjects were better taught, I now began to understand them. The lecturer in physics was the eminent Nobel Prize winner, E.T.S. Walton. He was a very dry lecturer; after lunch his droning Northern voice sent many off into the land of metaphysics. Nevertheless, he gave us a firm basis of physics. Incidentally, Walton was also my Tutor, though I hardly ever went near him when I had a problem. Instead, I consulted the man I’d originally wanted as a Tutor, Mr. La Touche Godfrey, who always seemed to know a way round the regulations.
Kenneth Bailey taught us chemistry. He had a novel way of waking us up halfway through his lecture, which also came after lunch. He had a copper tube containing a mixture of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. When he saw us nodding off he'd put a match to the tube; the explosion did the rest. Chemistry practicals were taken by Dr. Werner, who had a very flowery manner of describing experiments. Precipitates were 'magnificent emerald' or 'glowing orange' or some such. Once, a friend and I obtained a bottle of colourless phenolphthaleine which we poured into the jug of water that Dr. Werner used for his demonstrations. When he announced that he was just about to produce a gorgeous sapphire blue precipitate, what actually resulted was a dirty grey mess. Poor man, he was totally mystified, and, of course, didn’t succeed in getting the correct result.
We were taught Zoology and Botany by two singular characters, Professor Bronte Gatenby, known as The Bront, and Professor Henry Horatio Dixon - alias Botany Dick. The Bront was a tall, stooped man, and very shy. I used to see him creeping round the college, always next to a wall as if needing its protection from some unspeakable horror. He could be irascible; once, while he was lecturing, and holding on to a blind-cord for security, someone was revving up a motor bike in the Parade Ground behind the Zoology Building. The Bront endured it for a while and then could stand it no longer. He threw open the window and roared out: "Stop that infernal noise, you fool." There was a pause while he studied the offender below before shouting at him: "And you look like a fool." I enjoyed his classes and the practicals, where we drew pictures of fleas and dissected dog-fish. However, I didn’t enjoy it when my laboratory neighbour popped a dog-fish liver into my overcoat pocket. I didn't discover it until one evening when I was walking with a girl in the Phoenix Park. My coat never did recover from the smell of that liver, and I suspect that the girl didn't either.
Botany Dick must have been about eighty years old at that time. He was highly organised and ran his lectures and practicals with precision. He always prefaced his lecture with the command: "Cover your numbers"; if he could see the seat number, its occupant would be marked absent. The substance of each lecture was exactly reproduced in a chapter of his textbook, which everyone had to buy. Each lecture was followed by a practical in the adjoining laboratory. Botany Dick had personally designed it, and delighted in showing us how he'd had the window frames bevelled off in order to increase the amount of daylight by fifteen percent. He had a peculiar declamatory style of speaking, which he delivered from the back of his throat. Before the practical he'd announce to the class: "I want you all to worry the life out of your demonstrator. Ask him devilish questions." The following year I succeeded in being appointed as one of those demonstrators, and had to field the devilish questions, for which I received a salary of £10, equivalent to about €500 today. Professor Dixon was the only teacher in Trinity who invited me to his house — once. Every Saturday afternoon he had half a dozen of his students to tea, when he delighted in demonstrating his haybox, in which he claimed that the insulation provided by the hay could continue to cook a pot of stew. Botany Dick taught me how to distinguish between the two main types of buttercup growing in Ireland — very useful for impressing a girl you’ve brought out into the countryside. The trick is to look at the sepals; they turn down if it's the bulbous type, and curl upwards if it's the type with roots.
For my first two terms in Trinity I lived at home, and then, with Mr. Godfrey’s help I was allocated a set of rooms in the Front Square. I moved in at the beginning of May 1945, just in time to take part in the VE Day hullabaloo. There were many students from Northern Ireland at Trinity then, and as soon as the news came of the German surrender a number of them went up on the roof, over the Front Gate, and raised an enormous Union Jack on the flagpole. For good measure a small Irish tricolour was run up, but below the Union Jack. An angry crowd gathered in College Green, quickly augmented by students from University College. It was hard to know whether the crowd was more incensed by the presence of the Union Jack or by its predominant position. At any rate, things started to get ugly, and a British flag was set on fire in College Green. The crowd made a rush towards the College gate, but the porters managed to close it in time. For the next day or two the College remained besieged. Occasional raiding parties were observed attempting to get in by scaling the high perimeter railings. These were driven off by patrols organised by the Junior Dean, Frank Mitchell. Staff and students maintained a 24-hour watch; medical students were to be seen armed with human femurs 'borrowed' from the anatomy room. Eventually there was a heavy rainstorm, which brought the proceedings to a close.
I occupied rooms on the top floor of Number 2 for the next four years. Inside the double set of doors there was a large living-room with a fire-place and a gas-ring in a window-recess. Beyond the living room there was a small bedroom. There was no running water, and no source of heat other than the fire fuelled by turf. Rooms were serviced by so-called 'skips', the name being a compromise between the Oxford 'scout' and the Cambridge 'gyp'. My skip was a one-eyed leprechaun called Power - I never did discover whether he had another name. Power's function was to bring a jug of hot water when he called me in the morning, wash up my breakfast dishes and generally tidy the rooms. He had several other rooms to deal with and was usually gone by lunchtime.
The sole lavatory in the Front Square was at the ground floor of Number 4, only two doors away. For me this involved a descent to the square and a walk of thirty yards or so, but in those days my bladder had a good capacity, and I didn't have to get up at night. There was a bath-house in Botany Bay, where we could have a scalding hot bath, rationed to once a week. In addition, there were showers in the pavilion for those who played games.
As Junior Freshmen we were obliged to attend roll-call four times a week. This meant being back in College by 10 p.m., when the Front Gate was shut and the Junior Dean's procession made its way to the Dining Hall. The JD wore his gown and mortar-board, and was preceded by a porter carrying a lantern - perhaps lanthorn would be a more appropriate term for such a dignified device – dangling from the end of a short piece of rope attached to the end of a pole. A line of those attending the roll-call would be waiting, wearing their gowns, and in alphabetical order. The JD sat at a table, ticking his list as we shuffled servilely past him, abjectly muttering our contemptible names. As each year passed, the number of compulsory weekly roll-calls diminished by one, until the great day arrived when we were free to come and go as we pleased. By this time we were already graduates of the University, having obtained a B.A. degree in Arts.
Everyone in Trinity, whatever course he or she was taking, had to take an Arts course of some kind. Each year we attended lectures in subjects such as Logic, Philosophy and Ethics, ascending the scale of Senior Freshman, Junior Sophister and Senior Sophister. It looked very impressive, but in fact it was a bit of a farce. At the end of it all we passed the Final exam, and clad in our borrowed or rented academic dress we received our BA degree. From then on we were the toffs of the College, eligible to wear the TCD Association tie. At this point in their careers the Arts students left, and we medicals stayed on for another two years; in those days were allowed to retain our rooms.
In September 1945 I entered the Medical School proper, having successfully completed the premedical course. For the next five terms we were to study Anatomy, Physiology and Biochemistry. On the way into our first anatomy lecture we had to pass through the dissecting room. I can still visualise the trolleys bearing sinister burdens covered with black tarpaulin. An hour later, when we emerged from the lecture theatre, Edward, the laboratory attendant, had removed the covers. Now, for the first time, we faced the men and women we would cut to pieces over the next year and a half. This was the only occasion we’d see them more or less as they appeared in life, but now grey and cold.
We were divided into dissection groups of eight, with men and women working apart. On that first morning some of us were sizing up the female talent, when we received a wise warning from one of our group who said: "Look, all sixty of us are going to be together for the next five years or more. My advice is to do your courting outside and avoid tears". Most of us followed those wise words.
The professor of anatomy was one of the Jamieson brothers, and from his accent you knew he came from Edinburgh. His brother was the author of the dissection manual we used. The Prof used to cruise around to see how we were getting along and would put his finger on the book saying: "I taught that faylo everything he ever knew about anatomy." Most of the time he sat in a small office off the dissection room, and left his assistant, Dr. Inkster, aided by a few demonstrators - students from the year ahead - to deal with our problems. One day the Prof emerged from his office just in time to see a huge lump of fat sailing through the air. It had been despatched by one of the more boisterous rugger-playing students as a greeting to a pal at the other end of the room. The Prof immediately delivered the stinging edict: "I will not tolerate layvity in the praysence of the dade." Indeed, the anatomy room had the sanctified atmosphere of death about it, and after the cadavers had yielded up their mysteries they were given a decent burial.
There were several medical students from Africa - one from South Africa and the others from West Africa. Professor Jamieson came upon one of the latter dissecting rather more energetically than he would have liked in that sanctified atmosphere. The Prof gave him a real ticking-off, starting with: "Damn your black hide." The South African was a Boer, quite a decent chap but utterly intolerant of blacks. On almost the first day of dissection he spotted one of the West Africans at the next table and muttered: "If he came as close as that to me in Sarth Effrica I'd take a sjambok to him." Such was the state of racial equality in those days.
Dr. Inkster was a kindly man. One Saturday morning he came round while I was dissecting and asked what I'd be doing that afternoon. I said that I'd wanted to go to the international rugger match at Lansdowne Road, but hadn't managed to get a ticket. He immediately took out his wallet and handed me a ten-shilling ticket for the stand. That was one of the matches when Desmond McKee and Jack Kyle sliced through the opposition.
Dr. Inkster had been injured in a car accident, and his face was scarred and twisted. He had a peculiar way of explaining the intricacies of some anatomical conundrum by twisting a corner of his white lab coat, bending over to one side and quizzically cocking his head up at you, as if to say: "Does that make it clear?" It never did, but we hadn't the heart to say so. We deliberately used to ask poor Dr. Inkster to explain something so that we could watch him twist himself into a contortion. Meanwhile, people were doing their best to stop themselves bursting out laughing.
The hardest part of anatomy was remembering the relations of various structures to other parts. For example, you might be asked to list the names of every structure that the aorta came in contact with on its way from the heart to the pelvis. David Lane and I created mnemonics to help us recall the list. The dirtier the mnemonic the easier it was to remember, and even today I can still reel off several of them, although I can no longer associate the mnemonic with the anatomical relations. To give some idea of our mnemonics, here's a fairly respectable one: 'Some virgins, old inferior virgins, say many randy prayers in god-boxes'. Fifty years later, and after delving into Grey's Anatomy, David figured that this particular specimen refers to the branches of the internal iliac artery - the superior vesicle, obturator, inferior vesicle, median renal, pudendal and gluteal arteries.
Every second Saturday morning we were tested by means of a 'spot'. This involved having to identify a dozen or more specimens laid out round a large table, each one marked in some way. A bone might have a red area, and we had to give the name of the muscle attached there. A nerve or a blood vessel might have a coloured wire around it; our job was to identify the structure. One had only one and a half minutes to write down the answer and then Edward rang a bell and you had to move on to the next specimen.
Professor Torrens taught us Physiology. He was a dry Northern bachelor, who lived in rooms in the New Square. His great passion was clocks, and he was reputed to be a fine horologist. As secretary of the Squash Club I had to visit him for some administrative reason that I've now forgotten. His living room was filled with clocks of every sort, all ticking away and chiming at various times. The only thing I remember about his course in Physiology was a question he asked me in the final exam, namely, to describe the layers of the retina, which I think I answered correctly, though I couldn't do so now. Biochemistry was the third subject we studied during those five terms. This was taught by Professor W.R. Fearon, a prissy, pedantic man, who insisted on pronouncing protein as protyne. His textbook on biochemistry formed the basis of our knowledge. I can't recall anything about his lectures.
In my first year in Trinity I joined the Choral Society, mainly, I think, to have another opportunity to sing in Handel's Messiah, which I'd greatly enjoyed in the truncated versions we'd sung at school. Joe Groocock was the conductor. The choir was made up of students and outsiders; some of the latter had been members for years, and included some ancient and fragile ladies. During one practice session, when the choir was singing the chorus All We Like Sheep, David Lane and I crawled under the practice room in a sort of cellar that ran under the building. We waited until there was a quiet passage in the singing, and then gave forth our own rendition of the chorus, substituting loud sheep baas for the words, and alternating these with blood-curdling banshee screams and howls. An agent (bearing a close resemblence to my father, who also sang in the Choral) later reported the outcome of our impromptu concert. Our efforts must have been pretty impressive, for they caused consternation among the more elderly female choristers. Some of the old ladies were convinced that the place was haunted. A faded soprano seemed to recall that a student had once committed suicide there. A prominent alto, who also happened to be the wife of the Archbishop of Dublin, proposed that her husband should be sent for immediately to exorcise the place, a step that Joe Groocock wisely prevented by declaring the rehearsal to be over. Years later I revealed to him who the perpetrators were. His only comment was: "All we did not like your sheep."
In March 1947 we were to take the final exams in Anatomy, Physiology and Biochemistry, which were referred to as 'Half'. Great work of revision went on during the first three months of that year, at exactly the same time that the country experienced the severest winter of the entire century. Snow was falling all over Ireland from the end of January, and remained until nearly April. The cold was appalling, and came at a time when fuel was virtually unobtainable. The great freeze-up began with a heavy fall of sleety wet snow during the early hours of Sunday January 26. On Saturday evening I went to a 'hop' in the Dixon Hall, Trinity College. It had been fine but cold as I walked back to my rooms from the hop, with no suspicion of what was to come. The next morning my bedroom was surprisingly bright, and a glance out the window quickly showed why.
The next day it didn't snow, but from then on, for week after week, there was real snow followed by more snow, and the temperature never got high enough to melt it. Nothing like it had been experienced in living memory - nor since, for that matter. What made it much worse was the acute shortage of fuel - we just never got warm or properly dry. Of course, at the beginning we didn’t know that the great freeze was going to last for weeks, but we soon realised that the snow was getting deeper and deeper, and our shoes wetter and wetter.
Wellington boots were brought out - they were black in those days: fashionable green came much later - and we slopped around in them, with feet either too hot or too cold. And then someone told me that in Talbot Street there was an army surplus store where they sold anti-gas boots. These were just the ticket; they had sturdy soles, and leggings made of oiled silk, with string ties that fastened round your legs below the knee. The great thing about the boots was that you put them on over your shoes, which remained dry and kept your feet warm. Furthermore, you could remove the ugly things when you came indoors, which was more than you could do with wellingtons. I could only be thankful for the anti-gas preparations; those boots were among the best things I ever bought.
Because of the fuel shortage, gas supplies were cut off for hours every day, but a small amount of gas had to be maintained in the pipes in order to prevent explosions. In Dublin this tiny supply of gas was known as the 'glimmer', and it was absolutely forbidden to light it, on penalty of having the supply cut off altogether. Inspectors known as glimmer-men had power to enter houses and feel the gas appliances. If they were warm, the glimmer-men had the gas supply cut off. No glimmer-man ever dared to enter Trinity, and as the glimmer at the top floor of Number 2 was almost as good as the real thing, I was never without a bit of gas.
A consignment of Dutch chocolate arrived in Dublin just before we sat ‘Half’. Very welcome it was, as chocolate was still in short supply, even two years after the end of the war. This was unlike any chocolate I'd had before, being dark and bitter. I bought a lot of bars, brought some into each of the exams and used them to keep my blood sugar up. Little did I realise then that half a century later I'd be a diabetic
'Half' was successfully negotiated, the awful 1947 winter was over, and it was time for us to begin medicine proper. For the next years we attended 'clinics' in the various hospitals. Every morning the Dublin consultants made their hospital rounds, visiting the patients under their care and using them as material for instructing any students who attached themselves to the consultant's retinue. The more exalted the consultant the more magnificent was his - in those days it was always 'his', never 'her' - retinue. In Sir Patrick Dun's Hospital, where I spent most of my time, each consultant was greeted as he went into the consultants' room by his own individual leit-motiv, beaten out by the porter on duty on a huge gong. Surgeons were identified by an initial roll on the gong, followed by one, two or three loud bangs, depending on his position on the heirarchical ladder. The code for physicians was the reverse. This jungle telegraph alerted those who were to join the retinue; if it was the senior surgeon who had entered, out came the matron, the senior and junior house surgeons, and any students attached to the team. Having removed his camel-hair coat, Mr. Greatman emerged and the procession moved off, the students bringing up the rear. In the case of a junior consultant the retinue might consist of a single student.
One of the first clinics I went to was at the Baggot Street Hospital. The surgeon in charge of the clinic was Jack Henry, whom I had already met socially. Jack Henry was a very pleasant man with an explosive manner of speaking that made one think he was at risk of blowing his upper lip off. The first case he showed was a man with a red lump in his armpit. It was exactly like one that I'd seen a few days earlier in another hospital. Jack Henry looked round at us, recognised me and snorted: "Sowby" - long pause - "tell us what you see there?" "I think it's an abscess, Sir." Another snort, as he turns to the others: “Sowby thinks it’s an Abb-Scesss.” Oh Lord, I think to myself, I’ve made an awful mistake; Earth, please swallow me up.
Henry appears to scent victory: "And what makes Sowby think it's an Abb-Scesss?" Before I reply, growing smaller and smaller, I quickly wonder whether I should get out of medicine: "Well Sir, I've seen one before." At this, Henry lets out a roar: "He's - seen - one - before! That’s exactly what these clinics are all about; we try to show you as many of these cases as possible, so that you'll recognise them the next time you see them." Sowby resumes his full height again. At about the same time one of my colleagues and I decided to sample the delights of an operating theatre. The Adelaide Hospital was Thomas' normal base, but on this occasion we went to Dun's. An operation was already in progress when we slid into the viewing gallery, clad in gowns and caps. The surgeon, Seymour Heatley, beckoned us to come down to the floor, and to stand at the head of the patient. Mr. Heatley was removing part of someone's thyroid gland, but all we could see was a gaping red hole in a green mountain. It was very hot in the theatre, and we hadn’t had the sense to remove our jackets. I was peering into the red hole, trying to relate its contents to anything we’d seen in our anatomy dissections, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Turning round I saw a white-faced Thomas staring glassily at the ceiling and then falling slowly back, stiff as a telephone pole. His head struck a wash-basin and smashed it to pieces. Thomas ended up in a corner, where he lay like a rag doll, surrounded and covered with shards of wash-basin. He came to quickly, and didn't appear to suffer subsequently, except when he received a bill from the hospital for one wash-basin. Thomas was never seen in Dun's again.
Some of us were working in the Outpatients one day when we were summoned into the small operating theatre there. Mr. Heatley was cystoscoping a young man. He got each of us to look into the cystoscope. All I could see was a wormlike object. As I passed the patient's head I asked him what the trouble was. His only reply was: "I've been a bloody fool." It turned out that he’d been ill in bed for some time, and with nothing much to do he had rolled some plasticine into a worm and inserted it into his urethra. Unfortunately the worm got away from him and disappeared into his bladder. A few days later Mr. Heatley pulled a wad of gauze from his pocket and opened it up for us. Inside was a six-inch length of plasticine with the tooth marks of the forceps that had extracted it from the young man's bladder. Seymour Heatley was assigned to talk to us about sex. I remember only one thing about the lecture - the sad case of the clergyman and his wife who were unable to conceive a child. They'd been married for four years and had been trying very hard to get the wife pregnant. It was only when Mr. Heatley asked them about their technique that they revealed the reason for her barreness — it was because the husband was endeavouring to impregnate her through her belly-button. I doubt whether he learnt about that in the Old Testament.
We spent the next year studying Bacteriology and Pathology, with lectures and practicals in each subject. At the end of the year we were tested in these subjects in an exam then known as ‘B’, the second of the three major exams that culminated in Finals. I greatly enjoyed bacteriology and pathology, which were interestingly taught by Professors Biggar and O’Meara respectively. The latter had a prissy, old-fashioned way of speaking, pedantic and clear; perhaps all this came from his having been christened Quain. After I succeeded in getting full marks in the pathology practical in 'B' I went to him to see if he'd take me on as a demonstrator the following year. Quain looked at the mark-sheet and said: "I had to give you full marks, as your answers were exactly the ones I would have given myself."
That exam gave me the opportunity for a small act of revenge. In our class there were two haughty women whom I'll call Ellen, though that wasn't their name. This pair never mixed with anyone, even with the other women. English Ellen was a sharp creature, quite clever and well-read. Once, in an Arts lecture, she took great pleasure in correcting me when I came out with the common misquotation about gilding the lily; she pretentiously pointed out that it should be 'to gild fine gold, to paint the lily'. Irish Ellen was pretty, a quiet follower of her cleverer namesake. Both of them did well in exams, English Ellen by dint of her intelligence, Irish Ellen by hard work, and they would have been expected to get high marks in 'B'. It was the custom of the secretary of the Medical School to emerge from her office promptly at noon, carrying the mark-sheet which she pinned up on a notice-board. Students, some apprehensive and some confident, gathered in the hall, waiting to see their fate. But on this occasion Sowby had been there before them, and had pinned up his own version of the mark-sheet. I'd arranged it so that all the students, except two, had the sort of marks that might be expected of them. The two exceptions were the two Ellens, whose names appeared at the bottom of the list, with abysmally low marks. That was the only time I ever saw those two brought low.
As well as our lectures we had to attend a certain number of hospital clinics — perhaps twenty each month. We were each issued with a card, which the clinician was supposed to initial at the end of the clinic. Other activities sometimes made it hard for us to complete the required monthly number of clinics. Fortunately, however, there were a few clinicians who took a relaxed view of this bureaucracy, and were prepared to fill a few gaps on the cards with their initials. Chief among these was a physician at Dun’s. Students who attended hospitals on the far side of Dublin would suddenly appear at his clinic at the end of the month.
In October 1948 I began a five-month session of residence in Sir Patrick Dun's Hospital. As students we were each assigned to one of the consultants for a month. Our function was to act as a sort of embryo Junior Houseman, to receive new patients and take their history, and to keep a continuing eye on each of the consultant's patients. For my first month I was assigned to a surgeon whose specialty was gastrectomies. On my very first morning I had to assist him operating. But first I had to 'scrub up', and get into sterile clothes for the operating theatre. I'd never done this before, and had no instruction on how to do it, and so it wasn't surprising that it took me rather a long time.
By the time I got to the table the operation was well underway. Between me and the surgeon there was a green mound with a large blood-stained hole in the middle of it. As on the occasion of Thomas' encounter with the hand-basin, I had very little idea of what lay at the bottom of that bloody hole. The surgeon almost threw a retractor into my hand and told me to haul on it to keep the hole open. After a while I'd ease up and the hole would collapse, causing the surgeon to grab my hand and say "Pull". This happened several times, and then I became aware of his piggy eyes looking malevolently at me over the top of his surgical mask, and heard him say, in his Cork accent: "Owby - arr oo tryne teh hailp me orr teh hinderr me?" On another occasion a late arrival was greeted with: "You're about as much use as an undescended testicle; you arrive late, and when you do come you're useless."
I had a month with another surgeon who had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps during the war, and had succeeded in remoulding himself into a passable imitation of a British Army colonel. He had two obsessions; one of these was about keeping surgical incisions small, and the other was whether his students had syphilis. His method of checking the latter was to hold one by the elbow as we walked along the corridor and to palpate the area to see whether the lymph-glands were swollen. According to him, this was a sure sign of advanced syphilis. He insisted on each of his students doing an appendicectomy, and would quite cynically pick out a suitable subject at his out-patient clinic. So, when a young woman came complaining of a pain in her belly, he immediately arranged for her to be admitted, saying to me: "There's your case." He assisted at the operation, showing me what to do and how to keep my incision short. I removed a perfectly normal appendix.
When I went to Trinity I kept up some of my sports activities, chiefly cricket, and I also discovered squash. I eventually became secretary of the Squash Club, and organised what turned out to be a rather disastrous tour in England. We had arranged to play matches in the Oxford area, at St. Edward’s School, Radley School and at an Oxford college, and managed to get a small grant from DUCAC, the university central athletic committee. Trouble began before we’d even left Dublin, when one of the team turned up at the Mail Boat without the necessary passport. Hal had been used to travel without one when he was on leave from the British Army. The rest of us went on to Oxford, where there were messages that the fixture at Radley was cancelled because of an epidemic, and that the Oxford college students weren’t available, for some reason I've now forgotten. We had our match against St. Edward's, which we lost, and that was the end of the tour. Later, there was an almighty row when DUCAC heard about how their grant had been wasted.
I played cricket most of the time I was in Trinity, on the second eleven. The team captain was Leslie Colquhoun, who later went to Toronto, where he became head of a major firm of stockbrokers. At that level, matches were conducted at a fairly leisurely pace, in contrast to the fiercely competitive atmosphere that existed at the senior level, where winning the cup was all-important. It was because of this dour atmosphere that a schoolmaster at Aravon, Charles Bowlby, organised a club that would play cricket for its own sake. That club was called The Leprechauns, and it played its first matches in 1949. One of these was against St. Columba's College, in June of that year. On June 16 1999 there was a fifty-year commemoration match at the College, at which at least three people who played in the original match, including myself, were present, though not playing.
That same month my father told me that he had accepted the appointment as Principal of Upper Canada College in Toronto. The move to Canada was to take place in mid-August, but first we had to decide about whether I was to go with my parents. I had only one more year until my Finals, and it might have seemed sensible for me to see that through. On the other hand, it was likely that I would be making my life in Canada and would benefit from having finished my training there. And so it was finally agreed that the whole family would go to Toronto. My father had pulled some strings for me to be accepted in the Medical School of the University of Toronto, with the proviso that I'd have to do two years instead of the one that remained at Trinity. This was a good idea, since the courses didn't coincide at the two universities.
In the meantime, I'd already made arrangements to do a month's midwifery at the Rotunda. As I didn't know what practical obstetrical experience I'd get in Toronto I decided to go ahead and do this stint in the Rotunda. Students had to live in the hospital, and, after a few days' indoctrination, we were put into teams of four and took our place on a rota to be called out to a delivery in the neighbourhood of the hospital, in districts that had seen better days in the eighteenth century, but were then slum areas.
Student teams were not permitted to carry any instruments, other than a few basic items such a stethoscope, a thermometer and tow for cleaning up the mother-to-be. Far more important though were the two pennies we always carried, to be used in an emergency to telephone the hospital and request the aid of the obstetrics registrar. We were supposed to do our best to deliver the baby - with the assistance of numerous old women who invariably gathered at the scene - and in most cases there was no trouble. Occasionally something would go wrong, and then the registrar would dash out in a van with the necessary equipment to sort things out. In the days following the birth, we had to go back every day to check that all was well with the baby, and that the mother's temperature hadn’t risen. In order to get credit for all this we had to be present at a specified number of births, which was around twenty-five; these had to be registered on one of the Medical School's cards.
I greatly enjoyed my time in the Rotunda. We met students from other universities such as Glasgow, and had a good social life between the deliveries. Later, when I was in my first job in Canada, I was very glad to have had this practical experience because, in the medical training in Toronto, students were limited to witnessing births in a hospital delivery room.
At last the day came for us to leave Ireland, where I had passed my formative years and made my friends. I suppose we were sad at leaving but I don't recall that I was; perhaps the excitement of the new venture cancelled out the sadness. It was worst for my mother, as she was leaving my grandmother behind, bed-ridden in a nursing home. She died about six months later, and my mother never saw her after leaving Ireland.
Canada began at Waterloo Station in London. In those days there were special Boat Trains to take passengers to their steamers. We travelled from Southampton to Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the S.S. Aquitania, along with what seemed to be most of the population of Canada returning home after a holiday in Europe. After a voyage of about five days, during which I read 1984, George Orwell's gloomy, and, as it turned out, incorrect prediction of the future, we eventually arrived at Halifax harbour. Two days later we were in Toronto.
We'd only been there for a few days when we were woken up in the early morning by wailing sirens; we looked out to see ambulances and fire-engines rushing towards downtown Toronto. Next morning we heard that a terrible disaster had occurred at the steamship docks. An ancient lake steamship, the Noronic, had gone on fire while tied up, and some one hundred and twenty passengers had died. The Noronic was built almost entirely of wood, and over the years had been painted, repainted and varnished. Any small spark could set off an inferno, and this is what happened. The bodies of the victims were taken to a large shed, whereupon a gigantic process was set in train to identify them. Some months later, the pathologist in charge of the operation gave a fascinating lecture about the methods used to identify half a dozen badly burned corpses that had defied all previous efforts. This was one of the most interesting and memorable lectures I ever heard. In fact, that and one I heard much later in Dublin, by David Norris on James Joyce, were the only really good lectures I ever experienced. To me, a good lecture is one that keeps me awake for at least forty minutes.
Shortly after we arrived in Toronto I enrolled in the university, and started my final two years of medicine. I soon found that the system in Toronto was a lot different from what I'd been used to in Dublin. For a start, everything was much bigger. Hospitals were bigger and the classes were bigger; there were around one hundred and sixty in my year, compared with the sixty or so in Trinity. We were much more regimented in Toronto, with more formal lectures and much less hands-on experience. The emphasis was on giving the students a good basic grounding in the fundamentals, and to leave the clinical experience to internship after graduation. I'm very glad to have been exposed to both systems, and to have obtained benefits from each.
I did get one good tip that I'm happy to pass on to any budding obstetrician, though it never did me any good. A group of us were having a session with the chief of obstetrics at St. Michael's Hospital. He threw out the following question: "What's the most useful thing the obstetrician can have when a woman is in labour?" He looked at each of us in turn for the answer. The first one said: "A forceps?" No. The next one ventured a pair of scissors. No. A scalpel? No. And so it went on, to the end of the line, with ever more desperate suggestions. Finally the chief pronounced: - "A long black cigar", with which to wait for nature to take its course.
It was assumed that most of the students would end up in general practice, and that a few clever ones would become specialists. The latter aimed to get on to the ladder that began with junior internship and ended, years later, with senior registrarship. The lucky ones would be accepted into one of the Toronto teaching hospitals, where they would be happy to accept the princely salary of $100 a year, knowing that eventually, as specialists, they'd be as rich as Croesus. I never intended going through the Toronto specialist mill, but was more drawn to public health as a career. I'd enjoyed the course in public health during my first year at Toronto. I particularly recall going with an inspector from the city health department to inspect kitchens of several restaurants. We turned up unexpectedly, before the owners had time to clean up, and found things that the ordinary customer wouldn't like to know about.
Two of my teachers in Toronto stand out in my memory. The first of these was William Boyd, professor of pathology. Like Professor Jamieson in Dublin, Boyd originated in Edinburgh. He had emigrated to Winnipeg, where he began his textbook on pathology, which was to become a worldwide bestseller and which we had all used in Trinity. As with many Scots, Boyd was a master of the English language, and his textbook contained some rich specimens, such as his description of tuberculosis as 'Captain of the men of death'. When he coined that phrase, back in the 1930s, TB was probably the leading cause of death in most countries.
The other members of my class were to begin the study of pathology that year, whereas I’d already completed it in Trinity, and done a year as a demonstrator in the practical laboratory. I therefore went to Professor Boyd to ask to be exempted from pathology lectures and practicals. Boyd was a tall, thin man, with enormous ears. I noticed an operation scar below one of them, and later heard that he’d had a parotid tumour removed. He sat in his office, smoking a curly pipe, while he listened to my request, to which he agreed, but suggested that I should keep some contact with pathology by attending his weekly 'tea parties'. No tea was ever served at Professor Boyd's so-called tea parties. Instead, we all assembled in the lecture room, waiting apprehensively for Professor Boyd to come in and name the three victims who were to assist him. The victims’ names were seemingly drawn at random, though no one was called twice. They joined Boyd on the podium, the lights were switched off, and a great hissing projector came to life, throwing a picture of a pathological specimen on to the screen. The job of the victims was to describe what each saw, and to offer a diagnosis. Needless to say, it was a harrowing experience to have to stand up in front of a hundred and sixty of one’s colleagues, with the great William Boyd ready to pounce. Fortunately, I was never called.
The other memorable character was Dr. Alan Brown, professor of paediatrics. Alan Brown was the last of the despots of Toronto medicine. He was director of the Sick Children's Hospital, in its former location on College Street, and ran it as his personal fiefdom. At the time I came under his tutelage he was nearing retirement but was still full of vigour. He was a small man with a round face and glasses, and always wore a bow tie. He soon latched on to me when he discovered my name, which sounds like Sobee, an artificial milk product made from soya beans. Brown's great fixation was breast-feeding, and he was always saying: "Cow's milk is for calves - mother's milk is for babies." The only exception to this rule was when the baby was allergic to milk, in which case Sobee was permitted. So whenever the subject of Sobee came up, Alan Brown would declaim: "Sowby, tell us all about Sobee." At about this time the new Sick Children's Hospital was opened on University Avenue. Alan Brown saw his creation into operation, and shortly afterwards retired as professor. He carried on his private practice for a few years, continuing to fluoroscope every one of his patients at each visit, thus delivering enormous doses of radiation to a large number of Toronto children.
As it turned out, my Finals weren’t much of a problem. We'd had so many examinations and tests during the preceding terms that the authorities had a pretty good idea of what we were capable of. I was examined by the Professor of Surgery at my final oral, which consisted of a nice chat about what I was going to do, where I was going and whether there’d be a good football team there. A few weeks later I had my graduation photograph taken, looking very smart from the waist upwards, with gown, academic hood and mortarboard. Down below, in the regions where the camera couldn’t reach, my clothing was decidedly informal.
Then, on June 15, 1951, I, plus several thousand other new graduates, heard the Chancellor of the University, Vincent Massey, say "Admitto te ad Universitatem." I was a doctor at last, in more senses than one, since the graduation degree was an M.D., and not the M.B. that I’d have received in Trinity.Back to top