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A bed at Ma Levin’s, dinner at Nick’s and nary an e-mail in sight.

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2004 - Spring


It’s been more than half a century since Arthur C. Crovatto, M.D. ’54, HS ’61, was a first-year Yale medical student living in Ma Levin’s boarding house on Howard Avenue, but he can tick off the names of his housemates as easily as if he were telling you who was at last Saturday night’s poker game: “Let’s see, there were 11 of us. I roomed with Bob Joy. Buzz Lind, John Rose and Lowell Olson were down the hall. Then there was Harry Miller … Bill Elliott. … ”

Residential life for medical students in the early 1950s fostered a camaraderie that has endured well beyond that triumphant moment when they received their diplomas. Despite, or perhaps because of, arduous studies and living conditions that can best be described as austere, graduates of 1954 recall those days with the warm affection of soldiers bonded by the rigors of boot camp.

Recollections of that time, which ended with the opening of the Edward S. Harkness Memorial Residence Hall in the fall of 1955, live on in a class book assembled by the Class of 1954 in preparation for their 50th reunion next spring. Robert P. Hatch, M.D. ’54, edited the class book.

“We loved the place,” Crovatto says of his first New Haven domicile. (When her boarders told her about a broken toilet seat, Ma Levin responded that it was for “half-assed doctors. The name—‘home for half-assed doctors’—stuck.”) Ma Levin’s boarders may not have known their host’s first name, but the house rules were never in doubt. “She wouldn’t tolerate women. Wouldn’t let them in the front door,” Crovatto recalls. Everyone knew Ma hoped her niece Jackie would marry a medical student, so whether this prohibition was a reflection of her moral code or just a desire to lessen Jackie’s competition was not known. “Only once in my life have I found a bottle of wine so bad that I couldn’t drink it. It was a bottle of something Ma Levin’s niece tried to share with us,” recalls Lowell E. Olson, M.D. ’54. “But it was a nice place to live. We all got along well.”

For $8 a week, Levin’s tenants got a room, housekeeping service, clean sheets and Sunday breakfast. They ate the rest of their meals at Nick’s or one of the other greasy spoons that lined Congress Avenue. Dinner cost about 50 cents, and students often worked in the restaurant in exchange for food.

But the big treat for those who stayed at Ma Levin’s was access to something rare and wonderful—television on Sunday evenings. “I’d never seen TV before. We’d all get together and watch Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar,” recalls Harry C. Miller Jr., M.D. ’54. “She was like a surrogate mother to us.”

Although Ma Levin’s boarders enjoyed the homey atmosphere, they were usually eager to move into one of the medical school dormitories farther down Howard Avenue (where the children’s hospital now stands). The cost was between $5 and $8 per week for a single room and between $3 and $5 per person for a double. But the main allure was a chance to interact with the more advanced students and to learn from their experiences. Plus, there were fewer rules. “I liked it better,” says Crovatto. “You were absolutely free to do what you wanted, as long as you didn’t burn the place down,” which probably wouldn’t have been hard to do. Adds Miller: “I remember a guy was locked out of his room, so he just broke through the wall.”

Some students had radios or phonographs for entertainment. “I brought a stack of very precious first-edition 78s I’d collected: Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey,” says Miller. “When I left med school I foolishly didn’t take them with me. Somebody probably used them as Frisbees.” As for access to telephones, “It wasn’t a big deal in our lives,” says Miller. “I can’t even remember. There may have been a pay phone somewhere.” One thing everybody remembers vividly was the formal tea hosted by faculty wives four days a week. “The tea was poured from a samovar, with cups, saucers, spoons, little cakes, the whole bit,” says Crovatto. “Everyone came—faculty, nurses, students, house staff. It was a wonderful tradition.” Less charming, but arguably more timeless, were the loud parties on the back porch of the dorm. Crovatto recalls a particularly boisterous gala involving fireworks after the board exams. “There was a convent right behind us. Usually the sisters were very tolerant, but this time they called the police.”

The Class of 1954 included three women. Two lived off campus, and one, Eva H. Henriksen, M.D. ’54, lived with women from the public health program in a dormitory next to the men’s building. Consequently, dormitory life for her was significantly different than it was for the men.

“We were allowed to study together, to help each other, so the guys would get together in their dorm,” Henriksen says. “But I wasn’t going to go next door to study with them. You just didn’t do that in those days. I wasn’t a great med student, but I did it all myself.” Henriksen did find a way to “visit” with one student in the men’s dorm. “The space between his window and mine was just close enough that if we both leaned out, I could hand him a cup of tea,” she recalls. “Then he’d hand me his mother’s home-baked black walnut cookies.”

Also outside the mainstream housing experience were World War II veterans, who lived with their wives and children in Armoryville, a village of metal half-cylinder Quonset huts built by the Army near the Yale Bowl. Two couples occupied each hut, one couple at each end, with the two apartments separated by a thin wall. “In the winter, whether you were warm or cold depended on which way the wind was blowing,” says Richard D. Pullen, M.D. ’54, a Navy veteran. The apartments, which rented for $37 a month, were heated with a pot-bellied coal stove and cooled by a sprinkler on the roof. “Silvia Heap, the wife of Walker Heap, put a can of frozen orange juice on the counter to thaw,” recalls Hatch. “When she came back a few hours later, it had exploded in the heat.” Hatch’s other vivid recollection is that “the walls were quite thin, so you pretty well knew what activity was going on next door. It was kind of intimate that way.”

While football games at the Bowl provided entertainment for veterans and their wives, they could also be a hardship. Either the couples were hounded by tailgaters wanting to use their bathrooms, or the roads leading to their homes were blocked off by traffic police. Getting to and from the medical school was also a challenge. Hatch remembers commuting for a while on an “old rusty bike I’d picked up somewhere.” Armoryville couples usually walked, biked, took the bus or used vintage Plymouths or Fords. “It might have been hard, but I remember it as a happy and fulfilling time,” Hatch says.

Indeed, whether home was a Quonset hut, a dormitory or a rooming house, the memories of former occupants have acquired the patina of nostalgia. “Things happen in your life that are life-changing. My going to the Yale Medical School was one of them,” says Crovatto.

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