Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Sackful of walnuts

I came across another wonderful memoir of Oregon medicine recently, Dr. Robert Langley's tantalizingly titled memoir A Sackful of Walnuts, completed circa 1974.

Langley was born in 1894 in Cripple Creek, CO, where his father supervised operations at a large gold mine. At the age of 12, he moved with his family to Everett, WA, where he got a job in the local drugstore. He recalls:
I watched as the clerks filled prescriptions, mixed cold creams, ointments, pastes, lotions; as they filled pint whiskey bottles from a fifty-gallon wooden barrel; mixed tempting syrups for the soda fountain or poured liquids from a gallon jug into a half-ounce bottle, with no funnel and without spilling a drop. That required skill and a steady hand. Because of their adroitness and the stature assumed by the doctors who came to visit the store, and the respect accorded them in the community, I decided I would become a physician!
Moving to Portland two years later, Langley attended the Emerson School and the University of Oregon before matriculating at the UO Medical School in 1916. He immediately obtained a position as student assistant in the anatomy lab. He writes: "In the Department of Anatomy my duties as an assistant were to catalog cadavers: to assign cadavers to all freshmen students for their dissection laboratory, two students per body."

Angling for a summer position that would help defray the cost of the second year's tuition, Langley approached the Dean. He recounts the conversation thus:
"Why don't you get a couple of energetic helpers and clear the ground on Markham [sic] Hill where the new medical school is to be built," [the Dean] suggested.

I followed this suggestion and made a verbal agreement with two of my dependable classmates. We hired a pair of stalwart horses, rented band saws, sharp axes and sturdy shovels and proceeded to clear the land on which the new Medical School now stands. We felt a real sense of accomplishment when we completed our job and leaned on our shovels to view the cleared area; our visible contribution to the new building site.
Apparently, this experience of working his way through UOMS did not have the most positive impact on young Robert, and he left Oregon in 1918 to complete his medical studies at Rush Medical College. After an internship in California, he was casting about for direction:
In a quandary then about what to do next, I consulted one of my former teachers at the medical school. I shall long be grateful to him for the best advice I ever received.

"You have had the best medical training it's possible to obtain in the United States, but you know nothing about the practice of medicine," he told me. "I'd advise you to give up any idea of specialization for the present, go to a small country town and take up general practice to see what it's all about. But don't stay longer than three years, for by that time you will know something about people right in their homes and daily lives and will be able to make up your mind about your future."
Langley took this advice and established a private practice in Riddle, OR, serving the nearby communities of Myrtle Creek and Canyonville and other points in between. He stayed in that area precisely three years before moving on to--of all places--Catalina Island, where he was physician to the Wrigley family.

So, what's with the title? Langley closes his autobiography with a poem:
So here it is "in a nutshell,"
The harvest of my life.
Each walnut shell has a tale to tell
Of happiness or strife.
God gives to each a race to run
With breath of life and job well done.
I'm glad the life He gave to me
Encompasses
this world and thee.

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