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The Early Days of Alpha Omega Alpha
Ernest S. Moore, MD
Dr. Moore was the second member elected by the parent chapter, and was for many years on the faculty of the College of Medicine at his Alma Mater, retiring as Associate Professor of Medicine Emeritus. Originally published in The Pharos of Alpha Omega Alpha, May 1944
The medical educational pot was boiling briskly in 1900. Fundamental changes in medical education had begun to make themselves felt. Many schools had been, or still were, commercial ventures. Admission requirements were elastic; instruction largely by lectures and text-book study; laboratories generally inadequate, sometimes none.
Educational standards were low. Heads of departments were selected who could buy substantial blocks of stock. The usual premedical requirement was a high school diploma. The better schools were departments of universities, or were affiliated with a university. University pressure was being exerted to raise the standards of their medical department to general university levels.
The medical students of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Medical Department of the University of Illinois, in the years immediately preceding and following 1900 were a primitive group. They were emotionally hair-trigger men, quick to resent an affront, and prompt to avenge an injury. Their behavior in halls and classrooms was rough and boorish. They were loyal to their friends and to each other. Class spirit ran high, and class clashes, often of riotous proportions, were of weekly occurrence. They respected neither authority nor property. Whenever a class was lined up for supplies for a class period, more or less rough-housing was present.
I recall an incident that occurred during a line-up for chemistry supplies. Large stock bottles of chemicals were on a shelf beside the line of students. Rough-housing was on as usual. A large bottle of strong sulphuric acid was smashed and poured over the adjacent student. As his trousers began to fall from him, eaten away by the acid, prompt first aid was rendered by pouring ammonia and sodium hydrate solution over him. No serious damage followed. A favorite prank in the bacteriological laboratory session was to take everything from the desk of a student, who for a moment left unguarded his supplies. He was simply out of luck for that day. The following session everything would be returned with interest if he took it right.
They quickly took the measure of their teachers. Popular and successful instructors were welcomed with extravagant clapping of hands and lusty cheering. When personality or lack of ability in a teacher aroused the resentment of a class, no one could tell what would happen. On a hot day the windows of a lecture room would be closed, the curtains drawn down, the lights put out and every one who could lighted up pipe, cigar or cigarette. This was the welcome that awaited the unfortunate professor.
This general crudity of behavior and disregard for gentlemanly conduct afforded no criterion for the quality of their studentship. They were earnest, energetic, capable students. They worked as long hours with as much zeal and as much success as do the medical students of today. They respected and admired superior studentship. An unusually outstanding recitation was frequently applauded.
They were keenly interested in the wealth of new things that were being added to medical knowledge. They welcomed the better courses, the superior instruction and the enlarged facilities that resulted from affiliation with the University of Illinois. Didactic teaching gave way to more and more clinical instruction. The importance of research was gradually realized; more and more opportunity was given to capable students to undertake it.
The student of those days was interested primarily in becoming a doctor. He wanted to learn the practical things that he could use at once in the care of his patients. The faculty was composed largely of men who were in active practice. They sought to prepare young men to become practitioners.
Into this vigorous period of transition came a junior medical student. He was a teacher of chemistry, eastern trained, steep in university traditionRoot by name. He was shocked by student activities that seemed crude and chaotic. Cheating in examinations was repugnant, rough housing was distasteful. But he was a diplomat, said very little, thought a lot. His thoughts began to take form. Why not form a student honor group to foster scholarship and honesty and promote high medical ideas?
Root was a serious, earnest man with a soft, persuasive voice. His eyes had a direct, assured but disarming gaze. His sincerity of purpose and confidence in the righteousness of his cause were manifest. In July of 1902 he approached several classmates and told them of his plan. They were interested and they suggested the names of others. Eight or ten were selected who approved the proposed organization. Frequent meetings were held, some at Root's home. He supplied a name, a motto, design for the key and the basic ideas. Many suggestions were made. A secretary was appointed, who recorded and assembled the various ideas. The secretary was instructed to make out a draft of a constitution embodying the various suggestions. This was done, and after some amendments were made, it was adopted.
Alpha Omega Alpha was now a going organization and had something real to offer. There was an active campaign put on to interest selected men to become members of the new honor fraternity. A number accepted the invitation.
On the night of October 29, 1902, the group, twenty-one in number, met in the Blue Room of the old Bismarck Hotel on Randolph Street. We had a good dinner and listened to informal talks by Dr. Root and others. The constitution and bylaws were read and ratified, and the new members were formally inducted.
This society was a strictly conceived and organized student idea. Dean Quine and several faculty members were invited to become honorary members, and accepted. This established university recognition and faculty approval of the society and its aims.
In the beginning, full approval of the student body was not current and membership was not prized as it later came to be. Crusaders, battling for reform, are always subject to criticism. "High brow" and "Holier than thou" were occasional terms of derision. In the earlier years, scholarship, as reflected by superior grades earned, was the first requisite for election. The election to membership was always subject to high ideals, honorable conduct in examinations, evidence of leadership and promise of eminence in post-graduate life.
The parent chapter gave Dr. Root confidence and firm foothold from which to carry on. Soon chapters were established at Rush and Northwestern. This gave us three chapters in university sponsored medical schools. The annual tri-chapter dinner with its prominent speaker became a prized event. Soon an open meeting with an outstanding speaker was held each year. Later it was felt that the restricted number who might be elected in any year was too small. A larger number of the student body, carefully selected, would better reflect the purpose of the organization and enhance its usefulness. Hence, a larger percentage of a class was chosen. It was a wise move.
With the passing years Alpha Omega Alpha has become a national organization with important educational significance. I am sure none of the charter members, aside from Dr. Root, had any idea of the import of their small beginning. From its inception, Dr. Root had dreams. he looked ahead and had visions of what future development would accomplish. To convert these dreams to reality became the dominating purpose of his life. How well he succeeded is known to us all.
Updated on September 18, 2013.
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