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History of AΩA

History of the Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Scholarship Society and Its Relation to Medical Education

William W. Root, MD, Secretary-Treasurer

An address before the Alpha Chapter of Ohio, Western Reserve University Medical Department, November 20, 1909. Revised October, 1922 Published in the Catalogue of Alpha Omega Alpha Honorary Fraternity, 1902-1922

In these early years of the twentieth century more progress has been made in advancing the standards of medical education in America than in all the preceding years put together. Of all the influences at work during this marvelous period but one organized effort has arisen with the student body and no future history of medicine can be complete without some reference to such influence. This is the Alpha Omega Alpha Society. Its organization marks a transitional period in medical education and in its betterment this order claims a modest share of credit. It was started as a protest against a condition which associated the name medical student with rowdyism, boorishness, immorality and low educational ideals and be it noted such protest arose entirely from students, not one member of the faculty having been consulted.

At five o'clock in the afternoon of the 25th day of August, in the year of our Lord 1902, six seniors met in the bacteriological laboratory of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Chicago to give definite expression to their positive stand for better things in the medical school and to band themselves together to do what they could to remedy a condition which seemed intolerable to them.

On October 29th this new departure numbered 21 students, all of whom were present on the evening of that date in the "Blue Room" of the Bismarck Hotel, where a detailed explanation was given by the founder and a severe indictment of conditions found in medical school made by the second man chosen to membership, Mr. E. S. Moore, in the course of which he stated that among the virtues conspicuous by their absence was honesty and to the extent that articles of any value would be sure to remain where placed in the medical building only by nailing them securely. A lack of scholarly attainments, on the part of a large majority, quite in keeping with the low moral tone, was felt as keenly. At this time but three medical schools in this country required college work for entrance and in fact many students had only the preparation furnished by our grammar schools, such standards as did obtain being very loosely enforced. The necessity that the students themselves combine to remedy such a condition was emphasized.

A movement with such aims and ideals could not long remain local and we find that on December 13th of the same year a permit was granted to 14 senior students of Rush Medical College, and on February 7th of the following year to 13 senior students of the Northwestern University Medical School. Then these boys were not satisfied to keep so good a gospel in Chicago, and we find before the close of this school year chapters at the Western Reserve University Medical School, Jefferson Medical College and the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania. Why it was that these high-grade and conservative seats of learning should welcome so new a movement, before more than the roughest draft of its constitution had been completed, can be explained only by the intrinsic merit of the ideal stimulating such movement. On May 20, 1905, a charter was granted to the Medical Department of Washington University at Saint Louis.

The year 1906 was a notable one for this society, since in it four schools of the highest standing were admitted to the chapterate. On February 1st a chapter was established at Harvard, followed on the 10th by one at the University of California. On April 20th a charter was granted to Johns Hopkins and on November 12th one to the University of Toronto. Columbia University was added November 1st, 1907, the University of Michigan December 10th of the same year, the University of Minnesota January 15, 1908, and Cornell University May 2, 1910. In 1911 Syracuse and McGill, in 1914 Nebraska and Tulane, in 1916 Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Indiana, in 1919 Virginia, and in 1920 Iowa, Texas and Yale were granted charters, making in all to date 26 chapters, all fully active with many applications pending from excellent institutions.

In 1906, when this order was four years old, a careful comparison was made as to its progress relative to other college organizations, when it was found that it had grown for the time since establishment more than twice as rapidly as had any of the other college honor societies, while of the ninety-eight college fraternities enumerated in Baird's Manual but two had made so good a record.

In justice to facts, three names must always be associated with the early history of Alpha Omega Alpha. These are William Webster Root, Burchard Hayes Roark and Winfield Scott Hall. Root conceived the idea, wrote the constitution, designed the badge and has fathered the movement generally; Roark assisted in organizing the chapter at Rush Medical College and took a special trip east at which time chapters were organized at Western Reserve, at Jefferson and at the University of Pennsylvania. The funds for this trip were advanced by the founder. Hall has, ever since the formation of the Northwestern chapter, recognized the significance of this movement and threw the immense prestige of his reputation as an educator, lecturer and author of international fame, into this fraternity of which he was the head from 1904 to 1913. Extremely busy man though he was, one third of his time had been devoted to the furtherance of this movement, as stated to the writer at the end of one school year. He was ably assisted by Walter B. Cannon as Associate Primarius, 1904-1913 (now called Vice President), who has continued as Chairman of the Committee of Extension which inaugurated the high standards best shown in the character of the institutions in which chapters have been established. From 1913 to 1918 Professors Burton-Opitz of Columbia and G. Carl Huber of Michigan served as President and Vice President during whose wise leadership we steadily grew in size and influence. It was due mostly to President Burton-Opitz' influence that chapters were placed at Columbia, Cornell and McGill Universities. For the six year term 1918-1924 Dean John L. Heffron of Syracuse University was chosen as President and Professor John J. Mackenzie of Toronto University as Vice President. This period is one of great expansion in prestige and usefulness. Recognition from educators, slow in coming during our early years when the nature of our society was not understood, now seems assured. This is also a period when marked discretion and excellent judgment must be used and we are fortunate in having had these two leaders. It is most painful to record here the death of our esteemed Vice President and Director August 1st, 1922, which is the hardest blow the organization has yet received. His place can hardly be filled for such a combination of scholarly attainments, teaching ability and power to inspire others, with so attractive a personality, is indeed rare. Elsewhere are noted certain aspects of his service with us.

As intimated above, this society is an honorary fraternity and membership is based exclusively upon scholarship, moral qualifications being satisfactory. It may at first seem strange that an organization avowedly for a specific moral purpose should not welcome all to assist in so good a cause, but should be, on the contrary, so exclusive. It was felt, however, by the organizers that this very exclusiveness would help to carry out the original purpose and that hence the idea of an honorary fraternity should be rigidly adhered to that the order might have the added prestige the better to effect the moral purpose for which it was established. To this end the qualifications of each candidate are most rigidly examined. Chapters are limited to medical colleges of the highest standing and in the election of undergraduates students only can vote except that members of the faculty who are also members of the fraternity have a negative vote. The election of students is conducted as follows: an official list of those standing highest in scholarship is obtained from the college records and no other names can be considered. This list is sent to each faculty member of the society and if no adverse criticism be submitted the elections are made by the student members from this list in the order of scholarship rank. The power of election is left to the students for the reason that they alone know of dishonesty in examination or immorality on the part of the candidates, either of which would preclude membership. The officers of the chapter are commonly students or recent graduates with the exception of the Counselor, who exercises a general oversight and who must be a member of the faculty. A few students may be chosen at the end of the third year of the medical course, but most of the membership is made up from the fourth-year class, not more than one-fifth of the candidates for graduation being elected. A small number of honorary members may be selected from those who have performed some distinguished service to their fellows. Women are admitted on the same terms as men. In fact race, color, creed, sex and social standing form no barrier to membership, the only qualifications necessary being scholarship and character. The badge is a flat key to be worn as a watch charm and shaped after the manubrium sterni. At the annual chapter meetings an address is given by some distinguished member of the medical profession. Already some of these addresses are notable contributions to medical literature. Candidates are regularly initiated, at which time the Oath of Hippocrates is read and the members are impressed with the moral tenets of the order. All, however, is non-secret and the constitution and further details can be mailed to any one interested.

The society has a charter dated January 31, 1903, and granted by the state of Illinois.

The general management is vested in a board of seven directors and in the executives,—president, vice president and secretary-treasurer,—chosen by them. A committee of five on Extension decides upon the eligibility of an institution for a charter and passes upon an application for the same before it is voted upon by the chapters or by delegates at the biennial council when the directors are chosen and other business of a general nature transacted. The President of the society has large powers and all business not covered by the constitution is left to his discretion with the consent of the Board of Directors. A second general committee of five on Meetings and Recommendations, just inaugurated, will arrange for our general gatherings and suggest to the President and to the members any change in policy or modification of usages thought better to serve our purposes. The personnel of our executives is found elsewhere.

In college such an organization forms a powerful stimulus to scholarship, for the student upon entrance to his medical course, soon learns that only rank honestly attained can secure "this highest honor in medical school." In the words of the late Dean Quine of the parent chapter "it is for the man who has made good" and it is likely that man who has made good in medical school possesses those qualities of mind and character which shall make him eminently helpful to his fellows. Not only this but our young brothers have inaugurated among the student body movements for its betterment or have converted their chapter meetings into training schools for the arduous duties ahead, as will be presently noted.

All of our chapters are substantially in agreement in that elections are made on a scholarship basis, that a dinner is held once a year and that at an open meeting a distinguished member of our profession is asked to give an address. In other respects chapters may differ widely owing to local conditions, traditions of the school and the like. Our parent chapter at the University of Illinois placed in the Quine college library an Alpha Omega Alpha case with $30 worth of books, including three volumes of Robert Koch's works, life of John Shaw Billings and life and letters of William Beaumont, and to these are being added suitable volumes from time to time. The Western Reserve chapter has instituted an Alpha Omega Alpha Prize Essay Contest, the prize consisting of $50 and open to any medical student in the Western Reserve University. Such prizes for results of original investigation obtain also at the Syracuse and Cincinnati chapters.

Beginning with the Harvard chapter and followed by Toronto, Syracuse, Michigan and others, meetings have been instituted devoted to the reading and discussion of scientific papers to clinical reports, one chapter even having inaugurated tuberculosis clinics in a neighboring city. Special mention in this connection should be made of our late Vice President, the Counselor of the Toronto chapter, who developed there a veritable research club where each member must present at least one paper each year. Our Board of Directors advises all chapters to have meetings as frequently as is compatible with college duties, at which a program of high order shall be carried out by the active members. Furthermore it is their policy to have the Secretary-Treasurer visit annually as many chapters as possible in order to observe the progress made.

Our influence is exerted not only in stimulating honest scholarship, ethical ideals and the research spirit in college but also in laying stress upon suitable qualifications for entrance and graduation and upon better standards for the profession generally. I may add that our methods in the evaluation of schools are quite distinct and while we are very glad to secure information and assistance from other organizations devoted to the improvement of medical standards and to reciprocate when we can, we nevertheless act as an organization quite independently in that we have our own standards, make our own inspections and prepare our own reports. Before a school is voted upon for a charter it is personally inspected and reported upon by our own representative however favorable the reports may be from other educational agencies and we have always, before submitting an application to the chapters or to the Council, required an unanimous vote from our Committee on Extension. A prominent member of one of these stated to the writer in this connection that our organization performed a distinct service here in that, being less bound by certain purposes of expediency, a higher standard is set with the added stimulus that goes with it.

All in all we hope now at our twentieth anniversary to have but entered upon an unique field of usefulness, and trust, as stated by a distinguished educator, "that this fraternity will have a great deal to do with the improvement of the general tone and solidarity of the medical profession." "To be worthy to serve the suffering"—such is our motto and may this watchword, together with the lofty ideals set before us by Hippocrates, "the patron preceptor of our order," be kept as a guiding star that the distinct purposes for which this society was instituted may never be relinquished.

Updated on March 21, 2011.


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