Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

May 29, 2003

Medicine’s Class of ‘43 trade war stories

Reunions are for scattered classmates to gather and, as the expression goes, “swap old war stories.” For the recent 60-year reunion of the Pitt School of Medicine’s Class of 1943, this was not just a cliché.

Macy Levine, for example, recalled waiting anxiously aboard a ship just prior to the atomic blasts on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. An Allied invasion of Japan seemed imminent.

“We were scheduled to attack Kyushu, which would have been very dicey. I’ve always credited the atomic bomb with saving my life,” Levine said at a May 16 reception honoring Class of 1943.

(Actually, it’s the Class of 1943-B, one of two graduating classes that year, when most U.S. medical schools were accelerating training to produce more physicians in support of the war effort.)

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Pitt med students, like thousands of their “greatest generation” peers, wanted to enlist and join the fray.

But medical schools nationwide, in cooperation with the Armed Services, encouraged deferred service where students were sworn in and placed on inactive status until earning their medical degrees.

(Longstanding Pitt anatomy professor and department head Davenport Hooker — the namesake for an annual award for Pitt medical students who excel in anatomy — is credited with persuading medical students to stay in school where their medical training eventually would better serve the war effort.)

During the war years, med students no longer had summers off; instead they studied year-round in nine-month segments with only a week off between them. The curriculum included required physical training and regular military drills and inspections, as well as a course in “military medicine.”

“We finished in December, instead of the following June,” said only recently retired physician — and prolific artist — Ralph Kniseley. (See sidebar.) “We were drafted in as first-class privates, then given commissions as first lieutenants [upon earning the medical degree]. We then had nine-month internships followed by a nine-month residency. By lottery, you either went in [to active duty] after the first nine months, or after the second.”

In those pre-Scaife Hall days, recently razed Pennsylvania Hall was home base for classroom training for the medical students, who did most of their clinical training at Falk Clinic (now Falk Medical Building) at Fifth Avenue and Lothrop Street. Internships were assigned mainly to Pittsburgh hospitals.

During the war, Pitt graduated some 300 M.D.s who, with few exceptions, wound up in active military service.

About a quarter of the 80 members of the 1943-B class are still alive, according to Patricia Mickelson, director of Falk Library of the Health Sciences. Mickelson helped organize the reception held at the library, which featured a photo and memorabilia exhibit from the World War II era.

Among the surviving 1943-B alumni, the exhibit recognized William Reilly, who served in the North Atlantic aboard the Saturnia, an Italian luxury liner captured by Allied forces and then converted into a floating hospital.

The exhibit will be on display at Falk Library until August.

The 1943-B class included two women (one of whom committed suicide after learning that she would not graduate, her classmates recalled) and one African American. Five 1943-B grads attended the reception.

Do medical school days seem like a long time ago or “just yesterday”?

“Oh, it’s a long time ago. It’s at least 20 years ago,” Levine deadpanned.

—Peter Hart

Leave a Reply