Getting into Medical School

I came back from the Air Force basic training with the intent of getting a job and continuing to take pre-med classes at night. It would take a long time but it was my only alternative. Then, I discovered that a new law had come into effect, the National Defense Student Loan Act. This, of course, eventually led to tuition inflation and all the troubles we see now in the “education bubble” but at the time it was a godsend. I found a little apartment near the campus and went over to the student aid office to apply for the loan. Here, I found one of many examples of bureaucracy in action.

I was asked my major field of study and answered “pre-med.” The lady at the counter told me she was sorry but loans were not available to pre-med students. Most of them never got into medical school and it wasn’t considered a useful major. I thanked her, left the office, walked around the block and re-entered the office. I went through the same routine except, when asked my major, I answered “English Literature.” That was fine and I got my loan.

Now, I needed a job. I had two jobs on campus during this period. One of them was in the Marine Biology Department and consisted of sorting ocean bottom samples through a binocular microscope, identifying and plucking out worms and other creatures from the debris. Since the samples were preserved in isopropyl alcohol, this was not very pleasant, even after I diluted the alcohol. The people were nice and friendly and the working conditions were not bad except for the fumes. I was pretty much on my own about hours and it worked out pretty well for a while.

Eventually, I found a better paying job although the working conditions were not as good. It was in the immunology department of the medical school so it carried the aura of being closer to my goal. In those days, USC medical school was located on the main campus until the third year when students moved to the LA County Hospital. I worked for a professor named Frederick Aladjem who was devoting his research to the physical characteristics of antibodies, their size, etc. Amazingly, he is still around and active. Those of us who worked in his lab used to joke about how cheap he was but he wrote me a nice letter of recommendation and may have had a significant part in my admission under somewhat unusual circumstances. I still see him once in a while at university functions. Here, my job was injecting rabbits with various standardized antigens, like bovine serum albumin, and then bleeding the rabbits a few weeks later to collect antibody formed by the rabbit. It was kind of a nasty job but it paid better than the marine biology one.

I learned a little bit about such topics as electrophoresis, which was pretty obscure then but is much more of a big deal now. Dr Aladjem’s research was to figure out the size of an antibody by how fast it moved in the gel under electric current. Of course, the charge on the particle also influenced this so it was a complex calculation. For you molecular biology students, this was the dark ages of biology still.

During this time, I lived in an old rooming house behind fraternity row that was called “The Jungle.” The Jungle was a pretty “in” place socially. It was owned by two old ladies, Dorothy and Rosalie. Their father had remodeled the family home into a rooming house so his two older daughters, one of whom was divorced and the other never married, would have a source of income. They were characters. The front yard was overgrown with banana trees and other semi-tropical foliage. In the middle, was a large cage of chicken wire that held, at times, a monkey. The front of the lot, facing the sidewalk, was made up of two apartments (looking a bit like manufactured housing) built right on the lot line and no doubt illegal today. There was a driveway although there was only one or two parking spaces, one a garage. My apartment had formerly been occupied by Diane Disney and her father had sent some people over from the studio to fix it up. They had lined the whole place with knotty pine, sort of like a mountain cabin. It had a small living room, a tiny sleeping area adjacent to the kitchen and a small bathroom. It was infested with cockroaches and, at night, I did war with them as they made a lot of noise. Had I known more about insecticides, I would have slept better.

For meals, I worked as a “hasher” at the Pi Phi house, a sorority across the alley. I don’t know if this is still done but the sororities had guys who served meals and cleaned up in return for free food. A number of hashers married girls in the houses and it was considered a socially desirable job for a guy who didn’t have a lot of money. The guy who lived next door to me in the Jungle drove a Mercedes 300 SL roadster, so the Jungle was a pretty egalitarian place. In fact, the Jungle had its own exchanges with some of the sororities. An “exchange” was a social event, usually lunch, but could be a beer bust. It was held jointly with a fraternity and sorority and was a good way to meet members of the opposite sex. Since many of the guys in the Jungle were Jewish and didn’t want to join Jewish fraternities (and weren’t welcome in the gentile ones), they often conducted their social life as though The Jungle was a fraternity. For example, you couldn’t just move in. If somebody was moving out, Dorothy and Rosalie would pass the word and would be presented with the name of an acceptable candidate. You could also move “up” in the Jungle. The most desirable apartment in the place was a sort of tree house that was at the front of the second floor and was big enough for two. For a long time, it was controlled by the track team. They passed it around among members. A lot of Jungle residents were track team members anyway. Rink Babka and Max Truex shared the rear apartment. In the entry to their flat was a partial plaster statue of Tommy Trojan, which was alleged to be the plaster model for the original which stands on the campus today. It had a torso, thighs and upper arms. I have no idea what happened to it in later years but it was an object of some veneration at the time. Many members of the track team were Australians and New Zealanders at the time so The Jungle had an international flavor to it. Dorothy or Rosalie, I can no longer remember which, had a pencil which had been shaved along one side and on that side was carefully printed “If your name is not Dorothy, it is thief !” Thus was life in the Jungle in the 1950s.

In the spring of 1960, my friends were far ahead of me in their pre-med studies but they were constantly encouraging. In May came the MCAT or Medical College Admissions Test. This was THE big test for medical school. They all suggested I take the test with them even though I was far from ready. They said that it would be good experience in a year when I would be taking it for real. It only cost $15 so I signed up and we all went over to UCLA to a huge classroom where about 500 people took the MCAT. To this day, I don’t know my score, just as I don’t know my SAT score. They didn’t tell you in those days. No Kaplan study programs to try to improve your score. It was what it was. Although I was taking the MCAT for practice, I wouldn’t be able to learn my score.

I plugged on with my classes, getting all As now that I was focused, even on the English Literature ones. My rabbit job was OK and I enjoyed the other two lab assistants who helped Dr Aladjem. One was Rupert Perrin (I think), who was from Jamaica and who taught me a fact I had never suspected before. In the wild, rabbits do not drink. You have to give them water when they are in cages and fed dry pellet food. Ordinarily, they get their water from the plants they eat. I really enjoyed Rupert. I think he already had his PhD and was a postdoc fellow. I can’t remember the other lady’s name (Rita, I later recalled) but can see her face. The two of them made up for the drudgery of bleeding rabbit ear veins for hours each day.

In August, my friends were all applying for medical schools. They would send away 20 or so applications hoping to get two or three acceptances. They suggested I apply, at least to USC medical school, for the practice. Applications include interviews and they thought the experience would be good for me. Once again, it was cheap, about $20, and so I figured I had little to lose. I sent away the application and Dr Aladjem wrote me a letter of recommendation. The first interview was quite an experience. I can’t remember his name anymore. It was at Children’s Hospital of LA and he was a pediatrician, I think in private practice. I have interviewed hundreds of applicants to medical school since but haven’t adopted his system. He asked me a long list of questions, writing down my answers on a legal pad. One question was “Who did I think the greatest man of the 20th century was?” I later kicked myself for not naming Jonas Salk or some other famous medical person but I answered honestly and said, “Winston Churchill.” Finally, he came to the end of his list and then proceeded to go through it again ! I guess he wanted to see if I remembered my answers.

The second interview was with a radiologist I later came to know well. He was a full time faculty member and the interview was easy. In late December, a letter came from the medical school accepting me for admission fall 1961 ! Yikes ! I still had most of my pre-med courses to take. Neither of my encouraging roommates were accepted and neither ever went to medical school. One became an ichthyologist and moved to Australia where he has had a distinguished career. The other entered the foreign service.

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