Medical Transcript

First-Class Memories

Only at young schools like the University of Miami School of Medicine can there be found graduates with firsthand knowledge of the institution’s beginnings. The University of Miami is fortunate that several of its earliest medical students are participating in the school’s 50th anniversary events this year. One of them is the president of the first graduating class and a voluntary professor of surgery at the school—Norman Kenyon, M.D. ’56. As preparations for the anniversary began, Kenyon shared his memories and thoughts about his alma mater in an interview with Jerry Lewis, assistant vice president for communication at the School of Medicine.

JL You were a member of the first graduating class. What were some of the obstacles and challenges associated with being in the first class?
NK The biggest challenges were the location and the facilities. The School of Medicine opened at the old Veterans Affairs Hospital in the servants’ quarters at The Biltmore Hotel. Imagine attending medical school at a hotel! We had no storage space. The classrooms had creaky floors and drafty windows. It was extremely hot in the summer, very cold in the winter, and we had no air conditioning. We had some ceiling fans, I recall, but the heat could still be overwhelming at times. It was a unique environment and certainly a unique experience.

JL At the time, how much did you think about the fact that you were in the first class? How obvious was it that you were embarking on something so entirely new?
NK Being the first of anything is both strange and exciting. There were only 28 of us students. And the faculty, of course, was not only brand new but quite sparse. By my second year, it was sort of funny that we had senior faculty and junior faculty, the only distinction being a year’s difference in their hiring.

JL Which faculty members were most influential in your education?
NK The school was started so rapidly, hiring faculty and administration was a real challenge. By far, the faculty member who was most stimulating was Dr. George Paff. He was a professor of anatomy who came here from Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia. He was rough and tough and had a gruff style, but he was very bright and made a big impression on the students. He was passionate about being sure you really understood the material. His motive was that if you knew your stuff, you would take pride in yourself and in your school. His biggest influence on me was that he nudged me into a surgical type of specialty.

JL What are your impressions and recollections of the first dean, Dr. Homer Marsh?
NK Dean Marsh loved students and was always interested in their welfare. He spent a lot of time with us. He also was very engaged with the faculty, though he didn’t have much patience for Dr. Paff and would always shake his head in frustration when Dr. Paff would walk into a classroom or meeting wearing an undershirt. Dr. Paff enjoyed being the antithesis of academia and would do that kind of stuff to keep people from getting too high and mighty.

JL What clinical opportunities did you have while you were in medical school?
NK Our clinical activities began at Jackson Memorial Hospital when we were in our junior year. We were a small group of students, and our experience at Jackson was absolutely spectacular. We were exposed to medical and surgical emergencies of all kinds, all specialties. It was great training and unparalleled preparation.

JL You graduated from the School of Medicine in 1956. What was next for one of the first graduates from a brand-new medical school?
NK Getting started in medicine was a huge challenge for the new graduates. After graduation, I left Miami for a year for an internship at John Gaston Hospital in Tennessee. Then in 1957 I came back to the University and to Jackson for five years of surgical residencies. During part of that time, I was on a fellowship from the National Institutes of Health and had the opportunity to work in the area of open-heart surgery, which was in its infancy at the time.
     I loved that experience at Jackson. It was a marvelously broad program—especially challenging and appealing for a surgeon, due to the high volume of trauma cases. Granted, that meant long hours, but trauma traverses all specialties. The opportunities to learn and to perfect procedures were virtually unlimited.

JL What do you think is the biggest challenge that our current students will face after they graduate?
NK I think they will face one of the same challenges we faced in that first graduating class. It’s fascinating to have so much knowledge, but what it really comes down to in the end is the doctor-patient relationship. There is no substitution or shortcut to interfacing with a patient. It’s one thing to know what the book says, but rarely have I ever seen a situation where the book guided me to make the diagnosis. That’s one of the problems I see with virtual medicine, online medical education. It’s great from an intellectual standpoint, but who would want a surgeon operating on them who has received only virtual training? A surgeon needs to have operated on a variety of patients with various complications. He or she needs to react on an instinctive basis, which requires one-on-one interactions with real patients.

JL What was it that drew you to surgery as a specialty?
NK Surgery impressed me and appealed to me because it is a field that allows you to take a problem and see it through to completion. That doesn’t happen 100 percent of the time, but most of the time you have the satisfaction of that type of consolidation—a clear beginning and end. I like that aspect of it.

JL Looking back on your many years in the field of surgery, can you point to a particular characteristic or quality that defines a good surgeon?
NK The hardest thing about being a surgeon is knowing when not to do something. Some people don’t understand that, but it’s the most important thing. The natural tendency, of course, is to do something, to take action. It really comes down to judgment, which most people don’t think of as a surgical skill.

JL What is the biggest change you have seen in medicine in the past 50 years?
NK One of the most significant changes I have seen is the introduction and application of antibiotics. What a tremendous difference they have made in our lives. More recently, I would point to the multiplicity of new instruments and new technology. For instance, in the last ten to 15 years we have seen the development of laparoscopic surgery. And, of course, there’s genomic medicine, which in many ways is still in its infancy but holds tremendous potential.

JL Imagine you’re a premed student in 2003, and you’re considering attending medical school at the University of Miami. Perhaps you’ve been accepted elsewhere, too. Why should you choose UM?
NK That’s easy. We’ve established a 50-year tradition of being a great medical school. The School of Medicine has a great curriculum and a solid, outstanding clinical program that very few medical schools could even begin to offer. Just look at the size of this medical center, look at the activity that occurs in the emergency room and the trauma center. Look at the opportunities available in medicine, surgery, the operating room, in transplantation. It’s absolutely spectacular. If you have the interest, it’s right here for the taking.

Photography: by Donna Victor
University of Miami Medicine Online
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