by Michael Alfred Peszke, MB (1956)
This is the last segment from my memoirs, Passage to America, written for my children and grandchildren. The memoirs begin with my earliest memories of my life in Poland - Halcyon Days; then War and Escape - followed by In the Safety of The United Kingdom; and preceding this segment, Post War Reality.
On a lovely Autumn Day in September 1950 I was one of well over a hundred other pre-med students lined up in front of the medical school buildings at the back of the Trinity grounds. At that time the medical school was still called the School of Physic. We were waiting to be alphabetically seated and to be greeted by the Dean, Professor Torrens, one of the most compassionate and kind individuals that I have met ever in my life. I shall always remember his help and support.
After being seated we heard the old hallowed admonitions; "Look to the left and look to the right and two of you will not qualify". It so turned out that my alphabetical "neighbors" were Ronald W. Pigott and Noel Pearson. Perhaps by luck and possibly by hard work, all three of us did qualify in July 1956. Both were good colleagues and Ronald in particular was one of my closest friends. Noel swam for the University and Ronald played field hockey and handy tennis; and was also an excellent water colorist.
But only about thirty of our class graduated in the summer of 1956, though many got their degrees later, either in the fall of 1956 or in 1957. But well over half of the initial class dropped out of Medical school, usually to follow other fields of endeavor. The attrition was particularly high among girls in the second year when working with cadavers.
In that inchoate mix of boys and girls it took some time before I met up with another Polish student in my class - Stanislaw Milewski. We were the only two Polish students in that class but next year there were three, Andrzej Gutkowski, and two lovely girls, Danuta Polak and Danuta Ropek. Yes, Danuta is a very popular name in Poland.
But there were many Polish students in the other institutions of higher learning in the Republic. They were at the College of Surgeons and at the three campuses of the National University, Dublin, Cork and Galway. While the field of medicine was popular, Polish students were also studying economics, history and languages, especially Spanish.
In this day and age of the European Union, Poles in Ireland are usually workers who have come to profit from the benefits of Celtic Tiger. But in 1950 the Republic was anything but a booming economy and the presence of so many Polish students was a consequence of the manner in which the Second World War ended, and the pro-Polish diplomatic stance of the Irish Government.
We were all children of the Polish Military that had fought in the West for six years. The travesty of the Big Three Yalta Conference which allowed the Soviets complete control over our country precluded our parents from returning home. After the war my parents had settled in Croydon. I had matriculated from John Fisher School (Purley in Surrey) in July 1950 and was about to enter University though the actual field of study was up in the air.
The feeling of bitterness and betrayal which all of the Polish students shared, but which we kept to ourselves as our own personal hurt. We realized that our non-Polish friends did not quite understand our feelings. We certainly did not feel that any blame attached to our friends who had been in early teens when the war finished. I for one never believed the literal interpretation of the "sins of the fathers will be visited on their children". Though as a parable it makes sense since the actions of one generation have consequences on the next.
We all participated in student activities, sports and parties. I loved water sports. In Dumfries, during the summer, I spent all my free time on the river, messing around in small rowing boats. The words of the Water Rat from the book - "Wind in the Willows" where he states his life passion as "messing around in boats" had a great deal of resonance. I joined the Dublin University Boat Club, though my rowing career was mediocre at best. I probably should have joined the sailing club. During prior summers I had sailed with the Polish Sea Scot on the Norfolk Broads and on a small scooner - Moneta - on the English Channel. After graduating I have sailed and in the past twenty years owned three sail boats, which I sail solo, and a sport which I really still enjoy even at my age. Stas played water polo for Trinity.
In addition to our Polish group there were many other foreign students who all found a welcoming atmosphere at Trinity. Most students were either from England or Ulster, but there were Irish (though at that time Irish students from the Republic were in a minority), some were Anglo-Irish, Canadians and South Africans. There was a large group of leggy American girls who would put on great performance of dancing the charleston at the student international day. There was a large group of Indian students and some from Nigeria. There were also Italian, German, and Swedish students. These last nationalities were usually on one year programs studying English or English literature or history. Each group added to the international climate of the college and made the relatively small school a truly liberal university.
How did I arrive at Trinity and why did I choose it?
There were many reasons. I had always enjoyed water sports and hoped to be able to row at a college. I was impressed by the fact that Trinity did well in 1950 at Henley in the Royal Regattas while a Trinity student Van Mesdag won the Diamond Sculls. Secondly, the London weekly, London Illustrated News had a great article on the buildings of Trinity. I thought Trinity was neat. Furthermore, there were already many Polish students in Ireland and I was told by many that Poles fared well in Ireland since there was none of the anti-Polish attitude still so prevalent in the economically strapped post war England. This attitude only evaporated with the onset of the reality of the cold war, and the tacit, though never stated realization that the Poles had been right about the Soviet Union and Uncle Joe. In 1950 and for many years the Republic still recognized the Polish Exile Government in London which also had its consulate in Dublin.
The Polish Consulate was a small piece of Poland for us in a foreign, although a very friendly land. On May 3rd, Polish Constitution Day, and on November 11th Poland's Independence Day, the Consul had an open house for the students.
So the idea of getting out of England was also appealing. Also British universities were understandably giving priority in admission to British students who had completed their two year national military service.
While I picked Trinity, the choice of medicine was to a large extent determined by my Father, who a career Polish officer at age forty-nine found himself in a very untenable of being without a profession or pension in a foreign country. He was determined that I would not be in his situation and believed strongly, probably correctly given all things, that medicine was the "free profession" which would assure me the greatest degree of social and financial freedom in the Anglo-Saxon world.
I was a reasonably good student at my prep school. But my strong interest was in the social sciences, particularly history. I gave this up with some reluctance but it led to a long term and many years postponed avocation of studying and publishing in history.
Anyway by the summer of 1950 I was accepted at Trinity College, actually correctly - the School of Physic at Dublin University - for the study of medicine and had a stipend guaranteed for six years from the London based Committee for the Education of Poles in Great Britain.
Shortly after my acceptance I received a letter from the Historical Society (Hist) and being quite ignorant assumed that it had to do with group of students dedicated to discussing history.
So, I joined. But while I used their facilities for many years, particularly their snooker/billiards room, I never took part in the debates for which the Hist was famous, a tradition going back to Edmund Burke, its founder.
Many decades after being married I said, truthfully, but possibly insensitively that my days at Trinity were the happiest days of my life. My comment was actually taken a little out of context, and it may not have been diplomatic, but if reflected that my six years in Trinity were diametrically different after the war time experiences of living in many countries. [In 2010 the political best-seller "Changing Times" is full of quotes taken out of context, as was my remark.] I felt at home in Trinity. This requires a short segue for a most brief account of how I arrived in the United Kingdom during the war. My Mother and I managed to get out of Poland on September 18th 1939, a few hours before the Soviet Asiatic hordes arrived.
We lived in France from December 1939 to January 1941 and then Portugal. I actually for a short time attended a French school, which made my difficulty in passing the French later harder to explain. Finally in July, 1941 we were able to join up with my father who was with the Polish Air Force in the United Kingdom and I was enrolled in a Scottish Prep School.
At Trinity I lived on the campus. For three years in Front Square at # 8 on the fourth floor. I had two roommates, a Scot - Graham King who studied history and played rugby; and an English boy from Brighton- Andrew Holmes-Siedle, who played cricket and studied chemistry. Both were much older than I was, and both had done their national service, one in the Royal Navy and the other in the Royal Air Force. Trinity at that time had about two thousand students and all wished to live on the campus, though most students were usually only allowed two years. The actual living conditions in those years were primitive to the point of being unsanitary.
Oxford University had its scouts and Trinity had its skips; they made our beds, cleaned our rooms, brought water up to the fourth floor and took down the slops, cleaned out the fireplace and generally did a lot of hard work around the place. Our skip was Tracy Riley. He had been a sailor in the Royal Navy in WW II and was advanced in years. The very strong nationalistic and religious antagonism at that time between the Irish and the English made it hard for Poles to understand the strong attraction of the British Army for many Irish citizens. On a recent visit to Westminster Cathedral I was very surprised to see in the Chapel of Saint Patrick the many plaques to the Irish Regiments of the British Army. It puts into a historical perspective the fact that the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin - a free standing medical school - was actually started by the British to provide surgeons for their army. I cannot imagine a Pole joining the army of the Germans or Russians voluntarily, even in the most dire economic straits.
Our suite consisted of three rooms with a tiny kitchen. From my bedroom we had a great view of the inner square, either called Front Square or even by its old appellation of Parliament Square. The girls had a pied a terre (powder room etc) in number 6. This meant that from the windows of our bedroom we had a complete view of the parade of girls in and out. Our bedrooms were a popular place for many friends and acquaintances who would spend hours tracking the talent. This was particularly true at the beginning of the new academic year, when old senior freshmen and even more senior students would scope the new talent.
The other window of the general sitting room faced out to the main street, the old Parliament building (at that time the Bank of Ireland) and all the way up to O'Connell bridge and street.
I was very lucky, because I was able to extend my residence by one more year to a very exceptional four years. Singles were close to impossible to get, doubles were difficult beyond two years, but I was able to arrange another triad. We had Stanislaw Milewski join Andrew and myself. Our new suite was in the New Square, number 32. Our rooms were much nicer and we lived in reasonable companionship. Stas was a meticulous medical student and became a very successful ophthalmological surgeon retiring as clinical professor from the University of Connecticut Health Center.
In late 2004 I got a letter from Andrew. He has done very well professionally and after a BSc (Mod) from Dublin got a PhD from Cambridge and married Monica Taylor who was a medical student two years ahead of me and had become a pediatrician.
In 1952 the Provost of the University - Ernest Henry Alton - died. The Campanile tolled and the coffin was walked through the College Grounds. The two senior sports clubs of the College, Rugby and Rowing (DUBC) provided the honorary bearers. I was one of those. We then invited to the Provost's mansion for refreshments.
My studies also had their ups and downs. Some things went relatively well and others gave me trouble. For years I have had a post-traumatic-stress-disorder experience of wakening and being convinced that I have failed my final examinations.
Medical school at Trinity was a six-year stint. This was the rule in all of Europe, though in some medical schools it was five years and at Oxford and Cambridge it was actually seven.
The first year was a pre-medical consisting of chemistry, physics, zoology and botany in which I got a second class honours. My professor of physics was Walton who received a Nobel Prize in the year in which I attended his classes.
The second and third year were a nightmare for me. Anatomy, physiology and biochemistry. I failed my first set of exams and had to repeat them. I was never good at memorizing facts. They either made inherent logical sense and I grasped the principle, or they were a jigsaw of incomprehensible and unrelated facts. Anatomy was just such an impossible challenge for me. To face the Saturday morning exam and be asked "what are the four anterior relations - or is it six?] of the descending aorta inevitably made me look stupid.
But I managed to squeak by on the second time around and then things got easier. The fourth year was primarily pathology, materia medica (pharmacology to the uneducated masses) and introduction to medicine.
The final two years were all clinical, with residence in hospitals and a lot of good fun, companionship, hard work and finally success. My academic year 1954-55 was spent in residence at Richmond Hospital and I began to really learn all about medicine and even some surgery.
In fact my very first clinical rotation was in neurosurgery. I still remember the first case that I observed, not yet even assisted. It was a soldier of the Irish Army, who fell off a truck and hurt his head. He developed major symptoms and was quickly diagnosed as having a supra-orbital fracture which allowed infection into his cranium. Poor fellow was trephined and a huge amount of pus evacuated. He made a complete recovery. But it was not my cup of tea. Another memory from Richmond was the appearance of the top internal medicine consultant namely Dr. Abrahamson (senior) by a chauffeur driven Rolls-Royce. As he walked in to the hallway the head porter would sound the gong to prescribed number of times to announce to all and sundry his advent. All the hospital staff would scurry to greet him. The Matron would appear from her office, never seen before by mortals and not to be seen. The drill of the British guards at the Queen's Birthday parade is nothing to the drill which accompanied Dr. Abrahamson. Dr. Abrahamson's chief registrar, registrar and interns all were in place to do rounds. As he entered the wards which had his patients, he would be joined by the senior Sister of the ward and as he left they would peel off to be joined by the Senior Sister of the next ward. The matron was with him all the time. At the end he would join her in a cup of tea and then drive off in Rolls. Lesser mortals were not invited.
Another macabre and sad memory had to do with poor result of an "hot" abdomen which went wrong after being sutured. The poor lady, developed paralytic ileus and died. The surgeon was very upset. The family refused permission to do an autopsy. The surgeon asked the registrar to go into the mortuary at night and check out the state of the sutures in the resection. In turn the registrar asked me to go with him. I am not sure that I ever gave the legal or ethical issues any thought. In fact looking back, I am not sure that I see an ethical problem, kind, though legally we were out of line. Anyway the registrar, opened up the sutures, got into the abdominal cavity, confirmed a mess, but that the resection sutures had held. The sutures were replaced, and bandages also applied, and the body was left in the seemingly identical state as before. At the time I thought that was a bit of a lark.
Perhaps the best - though undoubtedly somewhat exaggerated - portrayal of medical student's life in the early fifties was captured in the - English movie - Doctor in the House.
I made some lifelong friends at Trinity. In my first year I met a number of long time friends. I would spend my vacations in London with my family. I traveled back and forth about thirty eight times. Most of the time I went by train from Euston to Holyhead, in Wales, and then by ferry to Dun Laoghaire near Dublin. On entering each country customs had to be cleared. The British Customs were very correct. They [no longer] gave each arrival a tablet which listed all the items that had to be declared. The most obvious were alcohol and cigarettes. The Irish - affable and friendly - only asked "do you have anything to declare"? They were quite satisfied with a polite "nothing". On a trip going back home to London, and having the anatomy examination in front of me, I had a half skull in my duffle coat pocket. After reading the proffered tablet I answered, "Nothing to declare". The British customs officer chalked some hieroglyphic sign on my suitcase and then said with what I assumed was to be a "gotcha smile'. "What is in your pocket, sir?" "Oh, a half skull." "A what?" "Half skull!" "May I see it?" "Of course." The face of the customs officer, after I took the skull out of my pocket and unwrapped it, was worth all the aggravation.
In my last year at Trinity coming to Dun Laoghaire when asked by the Irish customs officer whether I had anything to declare, I replied, "Like what?' The poor fellow looked very embarrassed, "Well like spark plugs". No I do not have any, anything else on the list. Now positively red in the face, "Well, like pornographic material, contraceptives". I was able to re-assure him that I had nothing of such scandalous nature.
In my days, all undergraduates were expected to wear small academic gowns for the purpose of formal lectures, the taking of written and oral examinations, and at the formal night meal, called - Commons. This was the common meal, when all the College fellows, tutors, and faculty as well as all students would sit down together for an exchange of ideas and for repast. During my residence at Trinity (1950-1954) beer was served at Commons. It was far from a good brew. Rather watery. Students used to comment about Dobbin having a bad day. [Dobbin was either the real name or the student nickname for the horse which used to go around the campus pulling a cart which picked up all the garbage taken down from rooms by the skips.] During my days at Trinity the drinking age was sixteen. So every student was legally entitled to his glass of watery brew. As students we were required to be present at five Commons a week. A tutor once explained the reason to me. He said that students often got into debt, and would attempt to save on food. The Commons, pre-paid at the beginning of the semester guaranteed that the student, or as we called them undergrad would have one square meal a day, at least five times a week.
The Commons was preceded by a formal Latin grace. It was mumbled by Trinity Scholars and the tradition was to run it off in a few seconds. In 1981 I was a guest at the head table. The grace was said by a woman student who made a credible job of running off the grace in a swift manner.
To attend Commons one had to have a tie and academic gown. Otherwise informal sports jackets and flannel trousers were acceptable. One such day a student turned up in his pyjamas but with a tie and academic gown. The head steward attempted to intervene but there was no rule to preclude this student from getting his meal. He is now a prominent professor at Trinity. Many, probably most, undergraduates had a very impersonal attitude to their gowns. Gowns were borrowed when needed and often not even returned. Often they were used as shoe polishing clothes and more often than not were torn. I had a very possessive attitude to my undergraduate gown, never lent it, held it hidden and I still have it.
Probably it will finish up on e-bay after I died. A very similar attitude was held by students for bicycles. There were masses of cycles. The Trinity ground were quite extensive, and even walking briskly, it would take up to fifteen minutes from Front Gate to the Medical Buildings in the East. So a student hurrying from one class to another, or just simply late following a lunch, a coffee beak at Bewleys or having over-slept, would grab the first available bike and leave it more often than not where he was going. Most students accepted that reality. Some having a more propriety feeling about their bikes would take their bikes into their rooms. Obviously against the rules of Trinity. Students who chained their bikes were rather unpopular.
While women students were precluded from being on the campus after hours, the residents of the campus were expected to keep curfew hours. Whatever status of the student or during semester or during hols the student had to be in before midnight or if late, would have to sign in and was potentially liable for a call by the Dean to explain his behavior. But there was another rule that all freshmen had to be in by nine three times a week, senior freshmen - twice; and junior sophisters at least once a week. This policy to ensure that students studied was monitored in a long and hallowed tradition. At nine, the bell of the Campanile would toll, and the Dean, accompanied by a College porter, carrying a lamp would walk to the Dining Room and call out the roster of the resident students. All the students who needed to get their credit would be in attendance in their academic gowns and would respond with some semi intelligible grunt when their name was called. The Irish would reply - "present"; and the English - "sir". After the roll call the students would stroll back to their studies, or visit each other and entertain.
Many years later, I believe it was in 1980 when I visited Dublin and Trinity College. My host was Professor Marcus Webb at that time, professor of psychiatry at TCD. So much had changed. In 1950-56 the campus was only for boys, oops, men! Women students were allowed on the campus for lectures, but were supposed to be out by five o'clock. However, for the sake of access to the magnificent library and its resources, they were allowed to come and sign in at the front door and then sign out.
In 1981 women actually lived on the campus!
Medical school while a six-year stint began after completion of secondary education. Unless the student had done his national service prior to matriculating to the University, the average age of the junior freshman was about eighteen. Also medical students were part of the undergraduate body at large. But at times there were visible differences. The undergraduates who were in such academic disciplines as history, literature or languages, etc. viewed the medical student as intellectually undeveloped and not really an academic but merely person in training for a trade. In turn medical students omitted no opportunity to point out their future earning power and also too often indulged in provocative discussions of many aspects of their clinical experience. One of my friends was so blatant in his loud voiced remarks about the latest case of some gross pathology that he was guaranteed to clear the table from the non-medical students.
Students at Trinity were pranksters. I well remember a very unpopular young and very full of himself faculty member having his little Fiat car manhandled all the way up the steps to the front of the Dining Hall. Yes, many steps. A good friend of mine, who was at times quite pompous and managed to elicit a lot of irritation from many, was dragged out in the morning, early in the morning, to be placed under a water pump and absolutely drenched.
Trinity was a religious institution and all students were expected in theory to attend church. Those students who were Church of Ireland (England) had to attend the College Chapel. Those who claimed another religious affiliation were required to make a formal statement to the Dean and were in fact under a theoretical probation to prove that they were attending religious observances. I think after a number of years I was formally contacted and asked to prove that I was attending a Catholic church on Sundays. I don't even know how I answered the letter, most probably - "Michael Peszke presents his compliments to the Dean and begs to inform him that there is no way he can prove attendance, since attendance is not taken in Catholic Church at service".
There is a delightful though undoubtedly an apocryphal story about the Trinity student who failed to get his formal exemption from chapel service and was noted as absent on Sunday service. On being contacted by the Dean, who of course presented his compliments and expressed his concern at the potential apostasy of the student, the reply was sent that the student was a sun worshiper and did not attend Christian services. Lo and behold, the next Sunday at the crack of dawn, and in the summer the sun did rise as early as 3 am, a skip arrived on the student's doorstep, woke him up and stated, "The Dean presents his compliments and all sun worshippers are to get up and greet the sun."
Trinity had many traditions. Most of them were rather English and during my time some of these things began to change. During the first two of the annual Boat Club dinners, fantastic affairs, which I will describe later, the first toast was: Gentlemen, The King! The second: Trinity! The third: DUBC (i.e. Dublin University Boat Club)!In my third year the first toast was changed to: Gentlemen, The Irish Republic!
I am not sure how this came about, but I think it was the negative response of the Dublin community to the way in which Trinity responded to the news of the death of the King George VI of Great Britain in 1952. The Campanile tolled for an hour, the flag flew at half staff, and the student body declared a day of mourning. The Irish were offended and I think there was some back room politicking to begin changing the more obvious signs of the British ascendancy.
As I write these remarks it is quite remarkable that a woman graduate of Trinity, also a member of the law faculty - Mary Robinson - had been elected to the Presidency of the Republic of Ireland. Now the boys will be toasting one their own!
Looking back and unaware at the time, Trinity was very subtly changing from a predominantly Church of Ireland and English/Anglo-Irish university to an Irish University. The Archbishop of Dublin, McQuaid, whose less than sterling moral ethics have only now come to light, was still ex-communicating Catholics who enrolled at Trinity. But this was the last gasp of the old nearly medieval church hierarchy. Fifty years later, Trinity is moving on, and becoming very much a European University.
As I mentioned earlier I was a member of the Dublin University Boat Club which held its annual dinner at the Boat Club, at Islandbridge. There were always a large number of alumni, though we didn't call them alumni at Trinity. We referred to them as "old boys". The silver came out from the bank vault, the cups won over a hundred years of rowing in many regattas. The captain of the DUBC presided but with nearly ceremonial assistance from the past captains, called admirals. It made no difference here on that night whether you were a recognized financier, or senior faculty, the prowess at rowing was the distinction. The DUBC senior blazer was sported by those who were entitled to it.
DUBC also hosted a summer ball, also at the boat house and one of the three premier events of the Trinity social calendar. The other was the best ball of all - The Players Ball. This was sponsored by the Trinity Dramatic Club and was a gala affair with many going in costume. The most elegant but not necessarily the most fun was the Trinity Ball, held on Trinity week.
The academic year was punctuated by examinations. The rowing year - we rowed all year, even in winter - by regattas. Usually that allowed us the opportunity to stop the strenuous training and many had great fun. Dinners at the now defunct Dolphin were a customary Saturday night event. I have memories of one such event which would never be tolerated in this day and age, and perhaps should not have been at that time. We were at the Dolphin eating fire grilled steak and finishing it off with Irish Coffee, when two of our lads, who had imbibed more than the rest, rode in to the dining room on cycles and began to weave in and out between the tables. They managed to do it successfully, the rest of the diners ignored them and they left to great applause.
The other drinking place was Jammets, close to Trinity.
Trinity Week, in July, was a disaster for medical students, since our student group was the only one that had examinations in late June. Our college at that time was so arranged that the examinations were always at the beginning of the semester. In other words, the freshmen studied all year, went home on vacations and then in September had their examination. Not so the medical school. Most of the time this was just as well, but it impacted on the fun of Trinity week and was that a fun affair.
College park had its traditional cricket match which went on as all cricket games until people died of boredom. But the fun part was the teas that were served. There were field and track competitions. The girls all wore summer dresses and hats, and as the effects of the sherry took hold and the effect of the cobblestones hurt the feet, became barefoot. The rowing club had its Trinity regatta at Islandbridge. As many students as possible had sherry parties. The faulty and richer alumni turned out in morning suits. The weather was usually warm, the girls were in summer dresses and hats and the tulips and roses of the grounds were in bloom. It was lovely.
In 1992 there was no cricket at College Park. The English had evaporated and the Irish were in full control. But even here I noticed that Irish Trinity students were so different from the UCD Irish student. TCD put its stamp on the student body.
In between all these activities, I tried to study and to ensure that I would get my BA as well as my medical degree, the Trinity - MB, BCh & BAO. In other words, the Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery and Bachelor of the Art of Obstetrics. Trinity was unusual in that it required a BA as a pre-condition of the granting of the academic medical degree. This was a four-year course, given at the same time as the medical courses. My first year went swimmingly. I had no trouble with the mathematics, philosophy, English literature and general civic course. But some did actually fail, particularly the mathematics. But I met my nemesis in my second year. I had to take a foreign language (French seemed to be the obvious choice), medical statistics, psychology and logic.
Well I failed statistics, along with many other medical students. I took the damned thing again, and failed again. The pass mark second time around went up ten points. I was now a repeat senior freshman. The following year I took the courses again, and passed medical stats, first time. But I now failed French, which I had easily passed the prior year !
I repeated the wretched French, it was Hugo I believe that I had to read, and failed a second time. I was now a third time repeat senior freshman. This was not just embarrassing, it was positively a disaster because I had no time in my life to study French. I was close to despair, not only was I going to have to pay an enormous amount of extra money in tuition out of my own pocket, but I knew I would never pass the bloody language. I actually went and made an appeal to the French professor. He was a very distinguished man, a senator of the Dail, since in the Republic the old tradition of the University electing their own representatives prevailed. (In other words, the graduate of a University had two votes, in his district where he lived and for a University representative. The British abolished this excellent practice after Labor came into its own in 1945, but in Ireland it continued, though it was only for the upper chamber, i.e. the senate.) Anyway, Skeffington, heard me out and then in a very courteous manner commented that he knew many Poles in Paris who spoke excellent French and could not understand why I couldn't learn French!
I was lost!
But I had a brilliant idea. I went to the Dean, informed him of my problems, and asked to be allowed to claim English as a foreign language. He asked me why, and I told him truthfully that I would never pass French. My request was granted and I went on to take the English language examination, which I passed and went onto also pass medical statistics for the third time now, and became a junior sophister when all my friends were already getting ready to get their Bachelor's of Arts.
I have mentioned the friends I made at Trinity, but there was a countless group of various acquaintances, whose names I barely remember. Among the students there were boys from Eton, Harrow, Lancing, Rugby, Saint Paul's, Merchant Taylors, and a whole group of Irish schools. There were good fellows, nerds, idiots, eccentrics, snobs, snots, rich and some even poorer than myself. I also met a student who I think was a genius - a physicist. Some had cars, usually because their parents could buy a car in the Republic and after two years bring the car to the United Kingdom without a tariff being paid. [It is easy to forget how strapped Britain was after the Second World War. It was economically in a very weak position and everything that was manufactured went for export to earn hard currency. I am puzzled how this worked with the Irish Republic, since the Irish Pound - before the Punt and before the Euro - was based on the British Sterling and in fact British currency was in wide use in Ireland. ]
We knew two brothers, who were in a minority at Trinity because they were RC Irish and allegedly were part of the IRA. Every weekend they took off to the Wicklows to participate in what they discreetly called military maneuvers. I wonder what happened to them?
But all of us often went to the Wicklows for a whole day of Sunday rambling, Sugar Loaf, Powerscourt and Glendaloch being particular favorites. The other ramble that I loved was going to Howth's Head.
An antique print of Glenadolough and a photo of the Royal Hotel where we often had tea and scones after a walk in the hills.
The girls had their own campus, Trinity Hall, which was in the suburbs, but unlike Trinity, a modern and very habitable dormitory. But it was a distance and most girls after a year or two in that place, escaped the confines to live in apartments, closer to the campus. In 2006 I visited Trinity Hall. It was a large complex of modern student suites. Men and women lived here, but I was told that living on the Trinity campus, even for one year was a great aspiration for all, but given twenty thousand registered students, not guaranteed.
I spent all my vacations in London at home with parents. Most summers I did some extra work. I needed to start a semester with at least thirty pounds in my pocket plus the monthly stipend that came in.
The students in the British Isles are famous for their pranks. The best I ever heard of was the Oxford students who placed work signs in London and dug up a major artery. Trinity students tried not to be outdone. My roommate took a bet that he would walk in his pyjamas up the main street of Dublin - Grafton Street. It was my job to wheel the bicycle close to him so that if there was a policemen he could jump on it and take off. I still have this old black and white photo of my friend, now a don at Oxford, walking with myself pushing the bicycle and grinning all over.
In my early years at Trinity, Dublin attempted to have a festival and placed a plastic fountain on O'Connell Bridge. After one of our DUBC parties, Tony Wilson, an Etonian, pulled the whole thing off its foundation and threw it into the river, where it sunk never to be seen or frankly missed. Tony was arrested and had to go to court where he pleaded that his esthetic sensibilities had been offended. He was found guilty and fined the cost of the wretched fountain, nearly two hundred pounds, a sum which supported me for a whole year in Dublin. His father, a famous ENT surgeon paid the fine and said that he respected his son's esthetic convictions.
My summer of 1955 was spent in London with my parents. But instead of working as I usually did for money, I did a clerkship at Guy's Hospital in medicine. It was a great educational experience. There was one other "summer" extern, a boy from Harvard. He was much older than all of us, reflecting the fact that in Europe we all started medical school after leaving secondary education. That was usually at age eighteen - the exception being students who had spent two years of National Military Service before starting their academic careers. The Harvard student, was in his third year of medical school and had already graduated from a college, which meant he was at least twenty five. An old man compared to us! I did not spend much time talking to him, but I do remember one exchange. He told me that since his family lived in New York he would get to Harvard and back by flying. I was astounded, FLYING!
Then I went back to Dublin in September and entered Rotunda for my obs and gyne. Rotunda was undoubtedly my happiest and most successful rotation. Rotunda had students from many other medical schools, including a fair number from English schools.
During the days we attended lectures and other clinical rounds, at night we also often delivered babies or we partied. After the obligatory ten deliveries in hospital under strict supervision we were set up in teams of three, with one student being the head of the group. This "senior student" had at least three weeks experience on the district with about ten district deliveries. The two other students would be in American parlance, rookies. I did my "apprenticeship" and then I became the senior student of a group of three, one of whom was a lovely English girl, from Middlesex Hospital (in London), who was a really great girl. As the saying goes a "real mate"! Of course the name of that eminent London teaching hospital was fair game for student comments which she took with a great sporting attitude.
We delivered babies in the various housing projects of Dublin. Some were dirt poor, some were the typical lower middle class hard working neighborhoods. The question that all students going out to deliver was: "What is the most important thing for you to have?" Bandages, thermometers, blood pressure cuff s antiseptic etc were the usual response but the right answer was; "two pennies" to call the Rotunda house officer on duty. This was way before cell phones and most of the apartments did not have telephones, so we were dependent on using public telephones.
I delivered twenty one babies in the district, one pair of twins. We of course knew the mother's history from the medical records of pre-natal visits and we knew that there was going to be twin delivery. On this occasion the house officer came out with us but stayed in the background. We actually delivered the twins.
We also had to make one home delivery with midwives. There was one senior registered midwife and one probationer. This was supposed to teach us how to exercise medical authority. The senior midwife had probably delivered more babies than all our class put together!
We used large sedans as a way of getting around the city. After a delivery, we had to get back for a number of past-natal visits, to check out the mother and the baby. We had one occasion of some concern, when the baby spiked a fever, but mostly things went better than one could expect. I became very good at obstetrics and gynaecology. In fact so good that I began to give informal tutorials to second year students on the pelvic anatomy. I hope the reader reads this absolutely seriously, I am not making some sophomoric joke. I was good and in fact when the examinations came in March 1956, I was first in my class and got second class honours. This was somewhat ironic, because in my second year anatomy had been my Waterloo.
As I worked at the Rotunda, I went to classes, also completed my senior sophister course work - government and some other courses that I can't even remember. May have been political science. We also had to take a course in forensic medicine and we learnt some of the arcane issues regarding suicides, drowning in fresh versus salt water, rapes, and all the other great things which affect humanity. Trinity had over the years been a medical school which sent many of its graduates to the British military and British colonial service. So we also learnt how to place latrines in a manner which would not affect wells. We also had a special course in psychiatry which I passed, but did badly. I should have studied from 'aids' to psychiatry, but I became intrigued with the subject, bought a text book by Henderson and tried to really get into the subject. Nothing in my actual performance would have predicted my future career choice.
After completing my Rotunda rotation, I moved in with two friends into a lovely apartment in a place called Sandymount Castle, Sandymount. It was close to Dublin Bay and I often walked at night to get a fresh look at my life, fantasizing about all my future plans and hopes.
As I was studying for the April (March?) examination in obstetrics and gynecology, I was also preparing for the final BA examinations, which the majority of my friends had passed two years prior. I passed the BA exams easily and managed to get a Second Class Honors (and top of the class) in Obs, Gyne and Peds.
Now I had to make a big decision, in fact two big decisions. Whether to invite my parents for the Commencements in May - the Commencements; and if not whether to get my BA in absentia.
I did invite my parents but also said there was a chance I might actually get my medical degree very shortly and I would love to have them visit me then. My parents made a very good choice, decided to take a chance that I would graduate shortly and they clearly could not afford to come over twice in a short period of time.
My second decision was whether to get my degree in absentia or to attend the function.
One of the hallowed traditions was that on obtaining one's degree, the newly minted Bachelor was the victim of abuse. The more popular the greater the abuse. Many decided to take the degree in absentia because of that. But that cost more money and families often wanted to see where their money had been spent and have a photo op. Usually the celebrant was confined to being covered in flour which was heaped in great amounts. I knew of one student who was dumped in the pond on Stephen's Green. Another one, who was visited by a friend, was tied down and taken out to the Wicklow in his formal white tie suit. Then his shoes were taken off and also his money and was left to get back home. But the denizens of Dublin were also aware of this hazing and our friend took a ride back to town with a stop for a "jar" to celebrate.
I decided to take it in person but assured my friends, drooling to get even, that since I was busy studying for the medical and surgical finals I would get it in absentia. So I sneaked in and knowing the back entrance to the Examination Hall sneaked out! The Examination Hall is famous for the picture of our academic founder - Queen Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen. The drunken scene by Michael Caine, in Educating Rita was set in that Hall. I had a good laugh at my would be tormentors who were all furious at me since being the very last to get the BA from my crowd they had promised to pay me back for all they had received, though I hasten to say, not just from me. This is a good segue into the origins of Trinity which in 1992 celebrated its 400th anniversary. Funded by the Protestant Queen as Church of Ireland Institution, on the grounds of a confiscated Catholic monastery, it was meant to be the first of many Colleges of Dublin University. Most students self-referred to themselves as Trinity students, not as Dublin University Students. But there were strange anomalies, for example the rowing club was officially called DUBC (Dublin University Boat Club) even though the cheers at the regatta were always "Come On TRINITY".
The medical examinations at Trinity were always a dyadic couplet of torture, the formal written part, always of three hours, probably the average of a coffee'ed out student's bladder tolerance; and the oral part called from its Latin viva voce a viva. I hated vivas. I never could do well in them and the travail's of my anatomy vivas were a nightmare continuing PTSD of nights when I can't sleep. But for the final clinical examinations the torture was elaborated to an exquisite degree. There was a written part; there was a viva (oral) part which had to be passed to take the third step; the actual clinical examination of a live patient or patients.
So after taking the written examination we all went off to wait for our turn to take the oral examination. The following day the proctors announced the results of the oral part, repeat oral part only. Pass or fail. Those who failed were out till the next examination, without even knowing how they did in their written part. Those who passed the viva, now had to prepare for their clinical examination. After that was finished, the whole grade was averaged but the student had to pass in every area, though honours etc. were determined by the final total score.
I already wrote that in obstetrics and gynecology I got second class honours, being top student with I believe a grade of 75%. First class started at 80%. No one got first class honours in anything in my class. A number of smart and hard working students, Pigott for example, received a number of second class honours. I only got two, in my first year for Botany, and in my final year for Obs and Gyne.
Then the moment of truth - surgery and medicine. I was good at medicine and hopeless at Surgery. I studied surgery all my free time, because I was still doing my mandated clinical rotations in hospital. I was scared of surgery but felt after the examination that I had passed. I had just squeaked by in surgery, with a grade of 51% being about four from the bottom of those who passed, though there were only about twenty eight who did pass.
A fair number of my friends failed. We were getting depleted.
Less than two weeks later - MEDICINE. After the examination I suspected that I had done well but I was a nervous wreck. And then it was over. The list of fails and passes was to be posted next day, at noon. I spent the whole night by myself, could not tolerate the tedious post mortems that went on between students. Next day, was probably the longest day of my life. I went to the movies. I walked out and went to another movie. I have no idea what I saw, I am sure at the time I had no idea what I was looking at. I knew the list would appear at noon, but I also knew that at noon there would be crowd of interested students and their hangers on. So I waited until about three o'clock and walked to the medical school building, through the back door and up to the bulletin board.
When I came to the board I looked for my name in the middle of the group of students who were above the passing mark. I was nowhere in sight. I started going down the list and becoming progressively more apprehensive until I fell below the bench mark - the 50% marking the lucky from those who would be doing it again in September of that year. I wasn't there either, had I been banned or what? I looked up and there well on top was my name.
I was sixth in class at 63%. Not good enough for s second class honours, but enough to get me to send off a telegram to my parents -
Photographs of Michael Alfred Peszke, MB, (1956) MA with some of his friends from his days at Trinity; 1950-1956.
Islandbridge - 1951 DUBC Regatta. I am hosting my long time friend - Stanisław Milewski - on my left - as well as two Polish female medical students from UCD.
On a jaunt to Howth, probably Summer 1952. From left: David Wilson (in my medical class), myself and Andrew Holmes-Siedle, my roommate.
July 1956 Stas and I after qualifying
50 years later at CCSU 2006
I relax on Ireland's Eye, off Howth.