Chapter Four: High School to College to Pre-med at the University of Illinois

Chapter 4 Sub-sections

During my sophomore year at Parker High School in Chicago, I was advised to take a competitive examination for the College of the University of Chicago. I was awarded a half-tuition scholarship and was a student there for two years, from 1949-1951. The college was the brainchild of Robert Maynard Hutchins, who mixed humanities, social sciences, science (physics and chemistry), and mathematics (analytic geometry and calculus) as a more or less standardized curriculum. Attendance to class was optional and not taken -- we had tests during the year, but our final grade depended entirely on the year-end comprehensive exam, three hours in the morning, and three in the afternoon. Our athletics involved beginning level gymnastics, and soccer on historic Stagg Field. We were warned to spend little time near the west stands (later removed), as the world's first atomic pile had been built under it in 1942, and residual low level radioactivity remained.

My grades were not good enough to maintain my scholarship and I switched to the University of Illinois Chicago branch on Navy Pier with about twelve hours of college credit, and started my pre-medical education. To help pay expenses, I worked part-time as an evening hospital orderly at Michael Reese Hospital.

Personal Values; Michael Reese Hospital, Chicago

I had begun working odd jobs at age 10. First was delivering Hunding Dairy milk with our neighbor, the wonderful Dan Herzel. I was hoping for more than the 10 cents/day that he offered, but I wanted to do it. I arose at 4-5 am, accompanied Dan to get the loaded milk truck at the dairy on east 71st St., and helped deliver the milk. On one occasion, while delivering to a delicatessen on 70th St. just east of Morgan, a horse-drawn open wagon stopped next to the milk truck. These wagons went up and down our alleys, and the driver repeatedly called out what sounded like "rags-a-lion" which was for ‘rags and old iron.' Dan's door of the truck was open and, when the gelding peed gallons, it splashed on the pavement, into the truck, and behind Dan's seat onto the milk bottles. We returned to the dairy for a new truck and a day of delayed deliveries. Dan made a great impression on me, and I delighted in the fact that he valued me as a helper.

In time I realized that an extra-curricular education can be more valuable than a formal one. My further insight was that value is earned; you cannot chase it. At age 12, I delivered the Southtown Economist, a non-daily neighborhood paper, to homes in the Englewood area. I was surprised how much I was paid, perhaps $15 a month. I set pins at the bowling alley of our St. Stephens church's recreation hall, not good pay. While at the University of Chicago, I worked as a clerk at the prestigious University Press, impressive, well run, with great concern for me and my education. My next job began my exposure to medicine.

Michael Reese hospital is at S. 29th St. and Ellis, one block east of Cottage Grove, just west of Chicago's Outer Drive along the lake front, and just south of what is now McCormick Place. The main red brick hospital, on the northeast corner, was about nine stories tall, with the entrance on its diagonal front facing the southwest. Meyer House, a several story red brick building across 29th St. and to the south, was the costly private hospital for the well-to-do.

My shift as an orderly was an adjustable 3-11 pm, and included preparation of all male patients scheduled for surgery on the following day. This included the surgical prep -- shaving of the prospective surgical skin area -- and enemas ‘til clear -- soapsuds enemas until the fluid returned clear of pigment. My first surgical prep was to ‘shave the perineum.' I'd never heard of that term. An intern explained where it was and that the prep needed to include a larger area for adequate cleanliness: shaving included the medial portions of the buttocks, scrotum, and sometimes the pubic area.

Another function was to move deceased patients to the morgue. I'd help a nurse's aide wrap the body and fasten ties to hold it securely, and then take it on a wheeled stretcher to the morgue refrigerator. Once, as I was transferring a patient onto the tray that slid into the refrigerator, I noted that his nose had bled sometime after we'd prepared him up in his room. I was shocked, wondered if he was truly deceased, and then relieved to learn that this was a not uncommon postmortem event. Interestingly, the seats for the morgue used for viewing an autopsy were accessed via an unmarked, unlocked door on the first floor, where anyone could wander in. I regularly watched when I could.

A polio epidemic in summer 1952 hit the Chicago area, and Michael Reese Hospital staffed a ward for patients needing a ventilator. We had an entire area of bulbar polio patients in iron lungs, 8 or 10 patients at a time. I delivered oxygen tanks and Drinker ventilators (iron lung). We didn't routinely wear masks or take undue precautions, although we did wash our hands. Amazingly enough, none of the orderlies or nurses caught polio, and, of course, none of us were immunized.

The Reese buildings had underground tunnels connecting them, for ease of transport of oxygen tanks, stretchers, iron lungs, and deceased to the basement morgue. Meyer House, as a preferred location, didn't move patients through basement tunnels. There was a second story passage way above 29th St. from Meyer House to the main hospital for transport to departments such as surgery or radiology. Main hospital's open unroofed four-east porch was great – four-east being the hospital area on that floor facing east toward Lake Michigan. Michael Reese was close to the Outer Drive going along Lake Michigan; the porch had a great view of the drive and the lake. We viewed the lake whenever we could, as the elevated open space promoted relaxation and ease.

As I was coming to Michael Reese one afternoon to start the 3 p.m. shift, and exited the Cottage Grove streetcar, I saw that there had been an accident. A well-dressed African-American woman had been hit by a streetcar. She had a head injury, was unconscious, and was being taken to the Michael Reese Emergency Room, one block away. I followed her there. The emergency room resident knew that I was a premedical student, and explained what was going on. The woman had recovered consciousness and now was sinking back into a coma. The resident said that this was classic for an acute epidural hematoma. She needed an emergency craniotomy as soon as possible

So I said, "Well, then she'll be going to surgery."

He said, "No, they won't care for her here. She'll be sent by ambulance to Cook County Hospital."

He added that the delay in transit meant that effective care would be late, but that was official policy. African Americans were routinely cared for at Reese, many as charity patients, but not for emergency surgery. I had had black friends for years and was appalled at this ‘real world.' I played intra-mural basketball at school, and half our team was black. I didn't discuss this with anyone, and felt helpless. Things had to be better than that.

It's amazing how naïve I was then, and how little was known about homosexual contacts, precautions, and awareness. A Michael Reese pharmacist assistant was my first, me, unprepared and unsuspecting. When I walked past the pharmacy, he was overly friendly, and in time invited me to a movie. I declined. A few days later, he asked me to help lower a window blind that wouldn't move. While I fixed it, he stood behind me and pinched my buttock. That ended our communication.

One night, near the close of my shift about 11:30 p.m., I was paged. The paging system involved overhead screens in all wards and corridors so we could be contacted immediately, if we watched them. This was for emergency surgery on a man with penile bleeding, likely due to prostate problems. I went to his room and shaved the surgical area. That was the end of my shift, so I went to the operating room visitors' seats and watched the surgery. The surgeons were vocally amazed that anyone would watch such routine surgery. They incised his lower abdomen, opened his bladder, and controlled the bleeding. Surgery finished well after 11 PM, when my shift generally ended.

I left Michael Reese about 1 a.m. and headed home. The Cottage Grove streetcar dropped me at 71st St. so I could head west to home on Princeton Avenue. However, the bus route on 71st had ended several hours earlier. I began to walk home along 71st St., a distance of about 1.5 miles. It's amazing now that I never considered phoning home for a ride.

Now began my only other homosexual encounter. Within a few blocks, a man offered me a ride. I was tired and took it. He was driving an older car in poor condition. He drove quite slowly, rather atypical. When we neared Princeton, he slowed even more, and said that we could get along fine and that he'd give me oral sex. I declined, and he continued past Princeton. I told him, no way, and he finally stopped by Stewart, because there was a stop sign. I told him, sorry (I can't imagine to this day why I said, sorry) and walked home. I was now beginning to recognize these unusual people and could more easily avoid such interactions. I told no one about these encounters.

This Michael Reese orderly position and my Navy Pier premedical education overlapped. When I applied to medical school, the nursing department at Michael Reese wrote me an excellent recommendation.

University of Illinois, Chicago, Navy Pier, 1951-1954

Can you imagine a college with a mile long single corridor with classrooms on either side? It was a wonderful solution for college for those who could not afford the downstate campus at Champaign/Urbana, or Northwestern University. Fig. 2. (Reprinted with permission from College History Series, The University of Illinois at Chicago, A Pictorial History, 2000, by Beuttler FW, Holli MG, Remni RV. Available from the publisher online at or by calling 888-313-2665), Figs 2-4 are from pages 49 (Fig. 2), 54 (Fig. 3), 16 (Fig. 4).

Figure 2
Fig. 2. Navy Pier, built in 1916, was little used until 1946, when the university established this branch. The present filtration plant (to the left) has not yet been built. The huge Quonset hut gymnasium is out of sight to the lower right.

The college occupied the north, or left, half of the Pier. The south-half was for city functions and conventions. The restaurant convention was there every spring, and we students, not eligible to attend, did our best to invade their food exhibits. It's tough to describe Navy Pier as a college, and I borrow from a description by a former student, Wayne Klatt (2004). Navy Pier, the college, was a drab, cramped substitute for a Chicago campus of the University of Illinois. This $4 million freight terminal and exhibit hall was built by Mayor Big Bill "the Builder" Thompson and opened June 25, 1916. The pier itself was renamed Navy Pier to match the newly built Soldier Field, but by 1921 the Chicago Tribune was calling it a "white elephant."

When World War II ended, thousands of young men and women across the country needed a university. The Illinois legislature, alarmed by severe overcrowding at the downstate campus, suddenly remembered that there were people in Chicago who also needed education. Workers sectioned off the northern tube of Navy Pier into 52 classrooms and 22 laboratories separated by Beaverboard (a variation of plywood) uniformly painted battleship gray. We were going to school in a long, narrow, one-and-half story human warehouse.

In the overcrowded years of the 1950s, there was no room to do anything except keep up with the crowd as students moved past the iron pillars like a slow-moving stampede that was set off every hour. There were no adornments, no hallway windows. The corridor ran between the long rows of classrooms; the north classrooms looked out on Lake Michigan (before the filtration plant was built); the south windows looked out on the central roadway that serviced the north (university) and south (commercial) tubes. There was nothing to provide a distraction from the gray rooms and bland single corridor except a biology exhibit consisting of a glass-enclosed snake that was fed a mouse once a week. You could tell when the snake had eaten last by the location of the bulge in that coiled, scaly body. If the bulge was near the mouth, it was Monday; if at midpoint, Wednesday; if smaller and near the tail, Friday. Maybe that kept us in a morose mood.

During winter, the bitter cold of our classrooms was still better than braving that hellish wind off the lake. The wind off Lake Michigan also blew huge waves onto the faculty parking lot – whose privilege was to be closest to the entrance – this resulted in thick sheets of ice across the fronts of their cars, which couldn't be started or driven for several days until the weather warmed. The Pier was satisfying – we earned our way into higher education cheaper than any other way -- the students had a rare camaraderie working toward these goals. When we registered for classes, we used the massive Quonset hut-shaped gymnasium just southwest of the entrance to the Pier. Fig. 3. (See permission, Fig. 2; this figure is from page 54 of the source.)

Figure 3
Fig. 3. The gymnasium was in a huge Quonset style building. We registered for classes, waiting in line for each specific class in a given subject. Once a class filled, we switched to another line for another class in the same subject.

When our orienting academic addressed our class of 400 premed students, he advised that 10%, or 40 of us, would eventually be admitted to medical school. This proved true. Navy Pier was not a major school and the student body not exceptional. There was a flood of veterans entering college under the GI Bill, eager for an education, but in general, not well prepared.

I had an introductory chemistry course in my first year. The lectures were enthusiastically and comprehensively presented by a retired chemist, whose name I cannot recall. He received royalties for techniques and procedures that he had developed and didn't need to work. His chauffeur dropped him off at the entrance to the Pier each lecture day and picked him up afterwards; it was elegant. I finished with a 4.58 grade average (5.0 was perfect), about 4th or 5th among premed students. I applied only to and was accepted by the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Polk and Wood Streets, near Cook County Hospital (3600 bed charity hospital) in Chicago.

I don't recall any family influence toward medicine. I had thought of being a teacher, which I later was, but the several teachers among my relatives suffered financially. I excelled at math and science, and believed that medicine would involve stimulation, satisfy curiosity, and be fulfilling.

I commuted by streetcar and the Englewood subway to downtown, and transferred to an elevated train above Chicago's loop that traveled west to the medical school. The loop, more or less a square, is formed by the dirty, soot-infested elevated rapid transit tracks above four streets: east-west Van Buren, north-south Wells, east-west Lake, and north-south Wabash. The major portion of the downtown businesses was included within the roughly mile square loop. It's a bit longer north to south than east to west. It includes the Board of Trade Building, Marshall Field's (now, disgustingly, Macy's), the Palmer House Hotel (now a Hilton), and the ancient Chicago Theater, south of Lake Street. The State and Lake Theater, directly across State Street to the west from the Chicago Theater, is long gone.

During college and medical school, outside jobs helped with expenses. US Steel South Works was another summer job during premed studies, which paid better than Michael Reese. My shift work hours, a week at a time, were rotated: 12 midnight to 8 am, 4 p.m. to 12 midnight, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. With this pattern, I didn't miss a day of work because of a shift change.

South Chicago Steel Mills

U.S. Steel South Works was a huge operation, located in far southeast Chicago on Lake Michigan. It began just south of 79th St. and extended for about two miles, to 95th St., and inland about ¾ mile. It used Calumet Harbor as a docking depot for iron ore ships from the Great Lakes and had about 17,000 workers on 3 shifts. There were blast furnaces for melting the ore and separating the steel, and rolling mills for rolling the resulting ingots into sheets of steel of varying quality. The quality was determined by a mix of elements in the molten steel to make various metals such as chrome and stainless steel.

I worked in the 44 inch (1.13 meter) slab mill, which rolled ingots of cheaper steel. Occasionally, it rolled chrome or other types, and that brought out the bosses, even in the middle of the night. They did not want expensive steel to crack in the rolling mill, which happened if the ingot wasn't evenly and deeply heated.

I had good pay, particularly on holidays. Regular employees wanted holidays free, so I worked a 16-hour shift on Memorial Day and Labor Day. I received double time for a holiday, and time and a half for the second eight-hour shift, which meant five days' pay for one 16-hour workday. The mill entrance was off 83d St., with of course a tavern within half a block. The crowd of men at each shift change was huge, and many stopped off at the tavern coming and going, particularly going, on payday. Occasionally, one could come to our shift drunk and all would cover for him, as mill workers were loyal to each other.

Our mill pit floor was oriented east-west, and the view of Lake Michigan from the east end was great, especially at sunrise near the end of a 12 midnight to 8 AM shift. The rolling mill was perpendicular to the pit floor, pointing south from its middle portion. Once ingots had been rolled into sheet steel, rollers moved it into the yards for cutting into lengths for shipment. The pit floor was about as large as a football field (100 yards by about 60 yards, or 92 by 55 meters).

There was an overhead roof with incomplete side walls extending down from it, to help dissipate heat; this open area provided our view of Lake Michigan. The pit floor had about eight or ten large gas oven pit furnaces imbedded in it, each with a sliding 30- by 40-foot cover on top. Each furnace could hold about 10 ingots. These furnaces were lined with coke, and heated to about 2500o F (1370o C) to re-heat ingots for milling. Red hot ingots from a blast furnace several blocks away were transported to the slab mill on an open flatbed train. They glowed brightly at night while in transit. These cooled once outside the blast furnace, and their outer edge formed a tough crust, so they were re-heated in the pit furnace until they had a uniformly even red hot appearance, to insure smooth milling without cracking.

I was a temperature recorder, and read ingot temperatures with an infrared device to determine even heating; I opened the pit furnace door several feet to view the ingots. To prevent skin burns from the intense radiant heat, we wore long sleeved flannel shirts and thick gloves, regardless of the season. When the ingot was heated appropriately, the pit door was opened wide and an ingot transferred by a 50 ton overhead crane to the rollers taking it into the rolling mill. The ingots were about five feet tall and about three by four feet in width and depth. I remember one African American who worked one of the overhead cranes that moved ingots from the pit furnace to the rolling mill, a high paying job compared to most of the 44" slab mill jobs. While he was operating the crane, the other operators complained that his sweaty body odor left it overly ‘smelly.' I argued that that was nonsense, that he didn't smell when he sat in the break room. These occasionally hostile ready-to-fight workers didn't regard me as competition and merely told me to quit being a college smart aleck, although their phrases were more colorful.

Two men, a roller and a manipulator, controlled the 20 ton rollers from a glassed-in observation room about 15 feet above the rollers. I went up there frequently to watch. The ingot's tough outer crust, now re-heated, was fragile, and literally exploded on its first pass through the rollers, spraying hot steel fragments 150 feet or so in every direction, some back onto the pit floor. When an ingot was entering the rolling mill, we took shelter behind human-sized curved steel shelters, and could hear the fragments bounce off the outside. My father had worked in the mills as an 18-year-old in 1923 and once had a red hot fragment land in the back of his shoe, burning his foot. Needless to say, all areas were always hot.

The red hot ingot was manipulated back and forth and side to side to stretch it out into a sheet of steel approximately ¼" thick, about eight feet wide, and 60 feet-80 feet long. Once evenly rolled, the sheet steel was transported by rollers into the next portion of the mill for cutting, stacking, and shipping.

Because of the heat and dryness, heat exhaustion was a constant risk. Fountains provided water, and we in addition could eat jelly candies containing salt and sugar. We were advised to take these candies at regular intervals or whenever we felt peculiar. These were effective, for, in a few minutes, we felt a sudden burst of energy. Regardless of the season, the pit floor was always hot and dry, with constant heat radiating from the pit furnaces. We wore heavy work shoes with wool socks.

I enjoyed these jobs; they were fascinating, helped pay for my education, oriented me toward medicine, and, in time, anesthesia.