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Whispers on the medallion, the Society of Wu, and Frisbee on the lawn

illustration
Illustrated by Greg Hall

What do you have to do to get into the School of Medicine? According to Dan Okin, a fourth-year medical student, a superstition handed down by students directs you to the medallion beneath the rotunda in the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library—where you stand and whisper your name and the phrase “Please let me in!” Thanks to architectural magic, they’ll hear you in the admissions office, which once occupied space above the rotunda.

“Our tour guides on interview day have the applicants stop in the center of the rotunda and say a few words to hear the mystical echoes,” said admissions director Richard A. Silverman.

If you ask alumni of the School of Medicine which traditions they remember best, they often mention venerable and well-established ones first—donning a white coat for the first time; honoring donors who willed their bodies to the anatomy lab; or raising money for the homeless in an annual auction. But quirkier traditions, customs, and habits have appeared through the years at Yale Med, too. Passed down from student to student, these activities continue to evoke fond memories. Some have survived; some haven’t, though we don’t always know why.

For a time, students would sneak into the Brain Room, locked deep within a subbasement of Harkness Hall. A historic collection of brains preserved by neurosurgery pioneer Harvey W. Cushing, M.D., was moved there in 1979, along with haunting photographs of his patients. The collection was forgotten for decades except by students in the know, who would break the lock or kick in a door panel to get in, then add their names to a graffiti-like sign labeled “Brain Society.” Brain Room expeditions ended after the collection was spruced up and moved in 2010 to the Cushing Center, a dedicated space within the medical library.

Some student customs were very much of their time. In the late 1950s, recalls Malin Dollinger, M.D. ’60, students sought birth-control advice from ob/gyn fellows living in Harkness dormitory. (Condoms were then illegal in Connecticut.) He and his classmates used the dormitory lawn to play with a newly invented toy, the Frisbee. Years later, Jilda N. Vargus-Adams, M.D. ’95, and her class gamboled on a Wham-O Slip ’n Slide there after exams. (Reports of quadriplegia in adults too tall to dive onto the toy led to a national recall in 1993.)

Alcohol has given rise to traditions both raucous and not. In the 1990s, for instance, the Society of Wu (why it was so named has apparently been lost to the ages) held a keg party in the Harkness basement just before exams. “The Yale system would dictate that you not take tests too seriously—surely you could go and partake in the Society of Wu the night before,” Vargus-Adams explained. (The Society seems to have mysteriously disbanded before this writer matriculated in 2000.) The same philosophy invested Thursday night dances at the Graduate and Professional Students Center at Yale, also known as GPSCY. After late nights at GPSCY, she recalled, whether from fatigue or hangovers, attendance and energy were low at Friday morning anatomy lab.

More prosaically, Dollinger’s classmates volunteered for paid studies at the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies on the main campus. They had to phone for rides back to the medical campus when they became too drunk to walk. That tradition presumably ended when the center relocated to Rutgers in 1962.

Harkness wasn’t the only locus of party culture. In the early 2000s, the Pink House, an institution of sorts in the East Rock neighborhood that housed a revolving and brotherly clan of medical, law, and physician associate students, hosted monthly rotation-switch parties. Alas, Roberto Lugo, M.D. ’04, who lived in that house, noted sadly on a recent reunion visit that it is no longer pink.

Yale Med’s longest-standing tradition, of course, is the Second-Year Show. Begun in 1949, it has burgeoned into a satirical extravaganza; the camaraderie and dedication it inspires make it the cherry on top of the Yale system. What few students these days know, though, is that the show began as a fourth-year activity. (The second-year show arose in the mid-60s; by the end of that decade, the fourth-years ceded the stage.)

The timing of the fourth-year show had its advantages, explained Victor A. Altshul, M.D. ’60. “We gave it just before graduating, so that the attendings we were lampooning couldn’t retaliate,” Altshul recalled. “And boy, did we ever give it to them.”