My son, the Doctor (First year University 1)

University of Cape Town – “Medical” faculty

In a previous post, I related the episode when the Presbyterian minister’s wife came to my home to reclaim the Bible she had given me after my “conversion” during my last few months at school in Wellington. After I was taken out of boarding school in the middle of my final school year, I entered Herzlia High School, Cape Town where I finished the year. I matriculated at Herzlia High School in 1958. The next step: university, of course. What do Jewish boys become? Doctors, attorneys (not “lawyers”) and accountants. Of my 1958 class of about 15 boys, at least five became doctors; real doctors, not just PhDs but MB,CHBs.[1]

My grades were good enough for Medicine. The entrance qualifications to the Medical faculty in the late 1950s were much less stringent that they are today. Since the introduction of affirmative action in 1994, Medicine has become mostly closed to whites, no matter how high their grades. I enrolled at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in February 1959. UCT, South Africa’s oldest university was founded in 1829 as the South African College, a high school for boys. It also had a modest tertiary-education facility.

In the 1880s, when gold and diamonds were discovered in Kimberley and in the Witwatersrand in the North, mining students were sent to study at the College. The College grew rapidly, and by 1900, it became a university. The Medical School was established between 1902 (Izzy was being born in Belarus) and 1918 (the end of WW1). Engineering courses and a Department of Education were also established at this time. In 1928, the university moved most of its facilities to Groote Schuur on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, land that Cecil John Rhodes bequeathed to the nation. The following year, the university celebrated its centenary. During the period 1960 to 1990, UCT was given the nickname “Moscow on the Hill” because of its “leftist” opposition to apartheid. One of the most famous students in the 60s, when I was a student there, was the leftist Adrian Leftwitch, who was Jewish, of course. He is now a politics academic at the University of York.

A trickle of black students was admitted in the 1920s. Their number remained low until the 1980s-90s, when the political situation began to change. A black student, Elizabeth, who was a member of the UCT Catholic society, where I was also a member, became head girl of UCT when she was in her second or third year (1960-61). There are two kinds of university years: social years and academic years. If you failed a year, it was called a social year – a year in which you buggered around – metaphorically. “Metaphor” literally means “over” meta + “carry” pherein, so, “social” students carry over one or more of the courses they passed in the previous year. Often they pass none, which means that case all they carry over to the next year is a hang over. Elizabeth was one of those social students. After two (or three?) years, she had one course under her belt: “pol phil” (political philosophy). We both belonged to the same Catholic social circle at Kolbe House. I was very fond of her. But I didn’t appreciate the fact that on the basis of her paltry academic record she was made head girl of UCT. Her meteoric rise was obviously a political move; liberalism gone to pot; of which there was no dearth.

My first year courses in Medicine were science courses: chemistry, physics (which were called “science” at school), and botany and zoology (which were called “biology” at school). I hadn’t done any biology at school. Biology is regarded as less demanding than science because biology didn’t have much mathematics and physics. The “scientists” at school were regarded as higher in the intellectual hierarchy than the biologists. We grade academics in terms of two distinct ladders of abstraction the “science” ladder and the “arts” ladder (I leave out economics, engineering, technology and other courses because they are not required to make my point). The “science” ladder: climbing up from concrete to the more abstract, we have biology, chemistry, physics mathematics. Mathematicians are the most highly respected because mathematics is the furthest removed from matter; odd, ‘cause most mathematicians are crass materialists. The “arts” ladder: climbing up – I’m simplifying grossly – we have drama, history (geography is another one of those straddlers between the science and arts ladders), languages, philosophy. And theology? That had been demoted centuries ago by Auguste Comte, the father of Positivism, from the queen of the sciences to the charlady of psychology. And psychology?

I exclude psychologists (and sociologists) because they dangle between the science and arts ladders. That’s not an unuseful position to hold because the psychologist or psychiatrist is the one you think you should see when you don’t know whether you should be a scientist or an artist; or Arthur or Martha. But don’t ask the psychologist to tell you what you are or should be; his highly remunerative role is to listen, ruminate, and encourage: “Carry on, I’m listening”. He’s listening to your voice. If your voice is deeper than the norm, it doesn’t follow that you are Arthur; you could be Norman, but once again don’t expect anything more than your psychologist’s ear? What is a more vital commodity than a sympathetic ear? Why, the commodity of conversation. Why don’t psychologists and psychiatrists understand that talking with their patients is far better than just lending them an exorbitant ear? Patients get less out of talking to their therapists than talking to the armchair. When architects need a rethink, they go back to the drawing board. Similarly, therapists need a rethink and should go back to their armchair. The armchair is more prosaic than prozac, but far more effective. Molière, the great French Comedy playwright understood this verity centuries ago. He held the armchair (fauteuil) in great esteem, for without it no proper conversation could get off the ground. Listen to one of Molière’s characters speaking in his best prose.(Molière’s LES PRÉCIEUSES RIDICULES – scene 9).

CATHOS : Ma chère, il faudroit faire donner des sièges. (My dear, we need to get chairs).

MAGDELON : Holà, Almanzor!

ALMANZOR : Madame.

MAGDELON : Vite, voiturez-vous ici les commodités de la conversation. (Quick transport over here the conveniences of conversation.

University was very cheap in the 1960s. The courses at university each cost 250 rands. At school, I had very little practical science experience; not even within spitting distance of a pipette or a flask – because I was far from the front of the class. The teacher did the experiments in front of the class. So, I found the practicals at university very difficult. I watched the other students waltzing through their pracs. They looked so clever. I didn’t ask anyone to help because I didn’t know what to ask. In the chemistry practicals, I couldn’t stand the heavy smell of chemicals. I had to learn how to use a pipette from scratch. An ill omen if I ever nursed the desire of becoming a urologist. Perish the thought.

In the botany and zoology courses of the first year, I never mastered the basics of cutting a thin specimen for a slide. In zoology, we cut up earthworms, frogs and dogfish. Then we had to draw what we saw. I drew what I saw with a little help from the textbook. My drawn and quartered frog, it bore no relationship the textbook drawing. “Whatever happened to the frogs innards?” I asked myself. Smarting and feeling stupid, a lecturer approaches, grins and moves on to the genius next to me. Is there a psychologist in the house who will lend me an ear? Not if he wants it back in one piece.

In chemistry, we had to do different tests to identify the substance in the test tube. Sometimes a sugar would look exactly like a nitric compound. If you used your tongue in the initial stages, that would cut out a lot of other tests; for, if you tasted something sweet, you’ve narrowed your the search considerably. The tippy-tongue test, though, could be a dangerous short cut. In my end-of-year chemistry exam, I was running out of time. The compound looked very much like a sugar. I placed a tiny grain on the tip of my reticent tongue. A flaming needle shuddered through the slab of pink flesh. I muffled the pain. Must not attract the attention of the examiner, or the other students. There was a flask of liquid close by. Was it water? No time to find out. Grabbing the flask, I took a swig and flushed my mouth several times. I ran a finger over my tongue. There was a little rough spot. My tongue ached right down the gullet. At not too great a cost, the short cut worked. The compound was a nitric compound. I passed chemistry. I’ll never know whether it was my rash act that did it. What I do know now is that nitric acid on the tongue is very sore and the tiniest drop could – if you’re not careful – give you a permanent lishp.

I had jumped the first hurdle on my way to becoming what Fanny, my mother, would’ve been so proud of: a doctor, a real doctor; medical doctor.

[1] PhD – Doctor of Philosophy, which can be for many kinds of doctorates, not just philosophy; but never for medicine. In British Commonwealth countries, a medical doctor is a M.B.(Bachelor of medicine) and a CHB (Bachelor of Surgery). There is also the MD (Doctor of Medicine) degree, which, in Commonwealth countries like South Africa, is the equivalent of a PhD.



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