Man of Letters
The notes Bruce Baker wrote home provide a unique glimpse of day-to-day life of a medical school student a half century ago.
Bruce Baker, who grew up in Clarence, a small town northeast of Buffalo, N.Y., never enjoyed being away from family and friends. Encouraged by his mother, Baker wrote frequent letters home from college and later from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.
“I realize now my mother knew these letters would be of historical value, along with such things as school grades and ration stamps from the 40’s, in an all inclusive scrapbook,” Baker said. “I owe her a debt of gratitude for preserving them …. The letters are probably more meaningful to me today than when I wrote them.”
Baker, who graduated from the School of Medicine and Dentistry in 1959, had a family practice for about 40 years in LeRoy, 15 miles from where he grew up. He married Nancy Anderson, also a native of Clarence. They were only passing friends until they met again when she was a student at the University’s School of Nursing.
“Early on, she accepted my invitation for a ride home to Clarence. This got things going,” Baker said “We were married in April of my second year on a Friday. We both had to be back to school on Monday after a honeymoon trip to Syracuse.”
The Bakers have six children and 21 grandchildren.
Baker’s collection includes several dozen letters, many of which report a week’s activities. He wrote his first letter from the School of Medicine and Dentistry on Sept. 13, 1955. It was a Tuesday and he had the afternoon off. With his letter, he included a copy of Ice Cold Days, the student newspaper. He wrote:
“The first day went nicely enough. Our cadaver didn’t bother any of us except that it tends to be somewhat fatty. Not too bad but enough to cause us to spend quite a bit of time in peeling fat. We started out in the chest and abdomen region and thus far we are still peeling the skin to expose the superficial muscle layers. It’s all rather confusing as nobody knows quite exactly what is to be done. I imagine that it will take a few weeks before we feel confident.
“Before we started class yesterday morning we had a few words from Dr. Tobin, Associate Professor of Anatomy who has charge of Gross Anatomy. He repeated the welcome given us on Friday and said a few words about the school and our future work. He repeatedly emphasized the fact that 14 applicants were turned away for each student accepted, and he stressed the fact that it was fully expected that everyone would pass and eventually graduate. In the afternoon we had Histology then we checked out our slide sets, got lockers for our microscopes, and then saw a short film on the use and care of the microscopes. At 3:30 we had a convocation with the entire student body and were addressed by Dean Anderson and the President of the University.”
In his first letter, Baker noted there was a beer party planned by the student council for the upcoming Saturday. He also asked for a subscription to his hometown newspaper, the Clarence Press.
Baker used what was called a “diary letter,” writing notes in each day of the week. He mailed the diary pages to his family. Baker filled the diary with lists of lectures, laboratory projects and hours of study as well as where he had lunch or dinner. The diary makes clear the heavy schedule of lectures carried by medical students of his day. On Jan. 23, 1956, a typical Monday, he listed three lectures, a laboratory session that featured an examination of a brain stem and another lab session during which he dissected a gluteal region and back of a thigh. By February 1956, as he lists his evening activities, Baker wrote: “I’ve never studied so much in my life.”
Sleeping pills and Ina’s diner
September 10, 1956
“Well, one more year underway. We had physiology this morning and pharmacology this afternoon. Our two courses this year in physiology are Respiration and Blood Gases, and Vitamins and Hormones. My half of the class has respiration now and the other in four weeks. This is the way I had hoped it would work out. Dr. Fenn is teaching respiration which is also very fine. He has invited the class out to his home this next Sunday for tea. We have a library project to do in respiration (report on some phase of respiration as recorded in the literature), however I am going to see if Dr. Fenn will let me do an experiment of my own and report on it instead of a library report which to my way of thinking is not the most valuable way to learn more about a subject. In pharm. we had a lecture by Dr. Hodge, head of the department, on the history of medicine and then checked out our lab desks. We also injected several rats with chloroform in preparation for Wednesday’s lab. We will work in groups of two and four in lab which in my case is fine as the people who are next to me in the alphabet are all good people to work with.
“I took a sleeping pill last night which was handed out in pharm. lab. We are supposed to report all effects; nothing happened to me however — I think that I may have been given a placebo. In respiration we had a lecture on lung pressures and volumes and a lab on the same subject. I am very enthusiastic about this course as it looks like a very dynamic subject. In psych. Dr. Engel outlined this year’s course and assigned four of us to write a criticism on the first two chapters of his syllabus for the course. He is going to revise it again this year and wants us to help him. It looks like I will be real busy this next week!
“We had another lecture today in physiology on the mechanics of respiration (we were scheduled for one lecture on this subject and have had three so far. Dr. Fenn seems to get carried away on the subject of mechanics; he did the same thing in circulation and in muscle-nerve). In lab we learned to use one method of gas analysis and practiced it all morning. In psychiatry we had a patient. Dr. Engel interviewed him behind a one-way window in the room adjoining the lecture room. Four of our class were with him, and the rest of us saw the interview through the window and heard it over a microphone. The patients know that they are being watched through the window by “several doctors,” but not that the “doctors” are the entire second year class. After the patient left, we discussed him as an individual and as a patient. The whole idea is to get us to learn to be observant about patients and to be able to express our observations.”
In his letters home, Baker regularly reported the dates he had with Nancy, what television shows he watched, when he went to church and where he ate. One of his favorite television shows was You’ll Never Get Rich with Phil Silvers as Sgt. Bilko. He regularly had lunch and dinner at Ina’s, a diner on Mt. Hope Avenue where many students ate.
“It was truly a ‘greasy spoon’ but it was cheap and the helpings were generous,” Baker recalled. After he married, Baker never ate at Ina’s again.
Oedipus complex, pharmacology and an autopsy
October 22, 1956
“We had a lecture this morning on Digitalis. In lab we did an experiment on local anesthesia. We injected each other with various drugs to see what their anesthetic potency was. I got through early and spent about an hour looking up references for my talk in pharm. which is going to be on the role of the liver in barbiturate metabolism. So far I have not had much luck in finding anything on the actual chemical transformations which take place. I have found enough evidence, however, to show that the shorter acting barbiturates are definitely detoxified in the liver. This afternoon we had a lecture on drugs which have specific action in lowering blood pressure by dilation of blood vessels. In lab we had a brief talk on the use of isotopes in medicine and then a tour of the toxicology laboratories in the atomic energy project annex. After this I went to hear a talk by a Dr. Stanley from the U. of Calif. Medical School and head of the virus lab there. He talked on viruses and claims that they are the most likely research area for cancer.”
November 11, 1956
“Two more lectures on statistics this morning and a lecture in psych. on child development, including the Oedipus complex and the castration complex, both of which make sense surprisingly enough. I had lunch at Ina’s and dinner too as a matter of fact. After dinner, the moment which I always dread arrived-nothing to do but last minute cramming for the final. Incidentally, Nancy will work through Thursday night and then will have Friday through Sunday off, which means that they will owe her one day as she should get a day of holiday time. We plan now for Nancy to take a bus home on Friday morning. Boy, I sure am glad that this course in pharmacology is just about over. There has been a tremendous amount of material to learn, and I just hope that I can remember the important points after the course is over. I can see now that I will be spending my Christmas vacation reviewing pharmacology and biochemistry.”
November 26, 1956
“I got home and started studying, only to be called at 3:00 to come to school for an autopsy. I was able to locate only one member of our three-man team, Alex, so there were just the two of us and our prosector to do the autopsy. I’m afraid that I didn’t get much out of my first autopsy, as we had the body for only an hour and 1/2 because some intern had promised the body to the undertaker at 5:00, and then our prosector was in a hurry to get home, so that we only had from 3:15 until 5:30.
All of the previous autopsies have lasted 3–4 hours. However, I’m not complaining as somebody has to get the Sunday autopsies, and it’s unlikely that our group will get another, and also, it may be that we would have learned no more if we had been there longer, seeing how inexperienced we are. We will get together with our prosector sometime this week and discuss the case with him. We will then have to write up a report of the gross and microscopic findings.”
February 4, 1957
“After class we had a session with Dr. Yu (who is the big cardiologist at Strong) on heart sounds. They have a very fancy gadget which plays tapes of recorded heart sounds, and which also can amplify sounds from a patient, and which has an oscilloscope and about 100 stethoscopes hooked up to it. It is very nice to be able to hear these sounds and see them at the same time so that we can get oriented on the sounds.”
First patient and a budget for the final year
February 23, 1957
“Well, today was really a red letter day. I had my first intimate contact with a patient. In physical diagnosis today our assignment was medical interviewing. One of us had to interview a patient and then discuss it with the others (in our group of four with our instructor) afterwards. We met with Dr. Reichsman after lunch and drew straws to see who would interview the patient. I got the odd one. We talked about the situation while the patient was coming down. To make a long story short, the interview was not like anything any of us had imagined. The patient we drew was, to quote Dr. Reichsman, just about as difficult a person to interview as we would ever see outside of a psychiatric patient. What we did not know while we were waiting for her, was that she had received some extremely upsetting news just before coming to see us (we met in Dr. Reichsman’s office and she was brought down on a wheelchair). So, we were all set back when she came in an extreme state of anger. She demanded to know why she had been brought down after having already had her history taken innumerable times and said that she was in no mood to be interviewed. Dr. Reichsman explained to her that it was a teaching exercise, (he had told her the same thing earlier in the day). She calmed down some and agreed to go on with it. Her words were, fire away with your questions, in a tone of voice that made me feel as useful as a 5th wheel. All the time I kept waiting for Dr. Reichsman to send her back upstairs, as I just didn’t think he would go on with it in such an ugly appearing situation. But much to my dismay he signaled me to go on with it. So I plunged in to it with a question as to how long she had been here at Strong. She was very cursory and parroting in her answers, but I did manage to get some information from her for the first 15 minutes or so; in fact I felt that I handled the situation very well at first, considering my inexperience, and although she showed her anger at me personally almost continually, I felt that I had the situation in hand. However, after about 15 minutes I began to stumble as I couldn’t think of any new leads to search for, and she was completely unwilling to go into any detail or to explain her feelings. So, the last half of the interview was rather a flop, but then I certainly don’t feel discouraged about it, instead I feel rather elated that I could carry it off at all and that I did not get angry at her, and most of all, I don’t feel the patient would have ever guessed that she was the first patient I had ever interviewed.”
February 10, 1958
I hope that you didn’t get buried in the recent snow. We have well over a foot on the ground now. I just wish that we had some time to take advantage of it with some tobogganing and such.
Right now we are enjoying a Sunday morning and afternoon at home. Nancy has to be at work at 4:00 and I will go up to see if I have a new pt. and try and work her up if there is one. I have had the whole weekend off from being on duty, but I was at school yesterday afternoon to finish writing up my last pt. I went to a party for an hour last night given by some nurses from the medical floor I was on two weeks ago, but it wasn’t much fun for any longer than an hour and my sweet wife was not with me.
I’m including our budget that you have asked for Dad.
|500 - Income Tax|
This is a very rough budget, but I believe that it will prove to be fairly accurate. We will be looking forward to seeing you next Saturday. Try and come early afternoon. I will be off from 1 PM Saturday until Monday morning. So, see you then.”Love, Bruce
Multimedia in this issue:
Brad Berk talks about his recovery from a cervical fracture.
The Sights of Reunion 2009
View a slideshow of the event.
The Heart of the Medical Center
View and listen to a narrated slideshow about the Miner Library then and now.