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The Anals of Hopkins

For nearly a century, denizens of the animal house known as the Pithotomy Club showed that medical students can be as raunchy as the next guy.

By Janet Farrar Worthington

The first Pithotomy show, circa 1913.

This is a story about a club that put on a show -- a yearly production with songs and skits so raunchy that nearly everyone who heard them, even some of the participants, blushed. In such bad taste were the lyrics to these numbers that Baltimore printers refused to typeset the program. No cow was too sacred, no body part or function too delicate, no subject matter off limits. And nobody was immune to the skewering. But who were these miscreants who joined in this outrageous revelry and often followed their big show with all-night gambling and an event known as the "beer slide" that resembled bowling with humans? They went on to become some of the finest doctors Hopkins has ever produced.

The Pithotomy Club, which began in 1897 and ended its reign as the oldest American medical fraternity in 1992, is part of the School of Medicine's (and the nation's) politically incorrect past. During the senior year of the very first class, two students, William G. MacCallum and Joseph L. Nichols, rented a house at 1200 Guilford Ave. They got a keg of beer to celebrate, and invited some friends to help them drink it, as well as two of their professors: the esteemed William Osler and William Welch. This informal gathering, according to Robert A. Harrell (M.D.-1980), who was president of the Pithotomy Club during his senior year at the School of Medicine and is the club's unofficial historian, was soon followed by several more. Soon, MacCallum, Nichols and seven others of that 18-member class were inspired to start a club to "promote the spirit of student-faculty friendship." (Note: Even though three of that original class were women, none of them received invitations.)

The Pithotomy Club's purpose, as expressed in its constitution of 1897, was to "facilitate the advancement of its members in the art and science of medicine by the promotion of social intercourse between the faculty and students of the Society." Its stated objective was "the promotion of vice among the virtuous, virtue among the vicious, and good fellowship among all." The initiation ceremony, devised years later, was simple: New members were handed a slip of paper with an assigned subject -- always ribald -- and told to give an impromptu speech on it.

The name Pithotomy, thought up by MacCallum, comes from the Greek words pithos (vessel) and otomos (to open). Put them together and the idea is "to tap a keg." The concept was captured by Max Broedel, who in 1910 became the founding chairman of the Department of Art as Applied to Medicine, in an 1897 cartoon. Pithotomy lore has it that the barrel under Broedel's keg (shown on page 20) is an effluent collector of the type used in labor and delivery, with the beer gushing into it, presumably like water breaking; that the instrument tables are also from the delivery suite; that the dog and cat belonged to the School of Medicine's first dean, William Welch; and that the sausages represent entrails from a patient.

There is no agreed-upon date for the first big Pithotomy show; Harvey Cushing mentioned festive burlesques, "in which the foibles of the teachers …were not spared," as early as 1897, while A. McGehee ("Mac") Harvey -- superb clinician, head of the Department of Medicine from 1946 to 1973, and a fine medical historian-dated the first show to 1914. "Always bawdy, sometimes clever, the show is merciless to dull or pompous faculty members," he wrote.

Max Broedel's 1897 rendering of the club's moniker, which translates as "to tap a keg."

The early shows -- held at the club's new location, a rowhouse at 510 N. Broadway, where the 550 Building stands now -- were fairly civilized and benign. (Example: Henry Hurd, Hospital superintendent, had a small dog, and was portrayed by a student pulling a toy dog on wheels). But within a few years, the yearly performances had evolved into something much bigger -- and far less genteel.

During show week, the house's first floor was braced from below with heavy beams to handle the overflow crowd. So popular were the shows that they were held over several nights -- one performance for medical students, one for house staff, one for senior faculty (and in later years, one for women only). They began with a series of "Welcome Welcomes," ribald four-line verses custom-tailored for each member of the audience. The first two verses were always the same:

Welcome, welcome all you strangers.
Now it's time for this year's show.
Four long years we've ground our asses,
Now we let you bastards know.

In years gone by, don't ask me why
My predecessors have seen fit
As April wanes and May draws high
To ferret out each hypocrite.

The song always ended with:

Often physiological functions
Come to pass at times like this
Please dear sirs do use the windows
When you need to pass your p--.

With all the beer that you are drinking
There's no need to wait or dally
Just remember when you go
The john this year is in the alley.

On faculty night, the show's grand finale was a song called "3,000 Years Ago," always sung by the club's president, sitting on a keg and scantily clad, a living recreation of the Broedel drawing. (F. Scott-Fitzgerald, in a 1932 short story called "One Interne," wrote about the Pithotomy Show and summed up "3,000 Years Ago" as a "witty, scurrilous and interminable song which described the failings and eccentricities of the medical faculty.")

After the show came a limerick chorus, in which students and professors, arms linked, stood in a circle and took turns reciting off-color rhymes. Then there was the beer slide, described by Harrell: "If enough beer was not already present, which is difficult to imagine, additional beer was poured on the floor so that it was quite slick." Members of the house staff were then sent sliding across the floor. Mac Harvey, Harrell reports, told of "smashing a beer mug into his face while being slid, resulting in a prominent black eye. He found it necessary to wear sunglasses the next day while entertaining a visiting professor." Afterward, the residents deposited their reeking, beer-soaked, no-longer-white uniforms outside their rooms in what is now the Billings Building.

Some Pithotomy Show moments have become legendary, and some have become infamous. There was the time during the 1930s when club pranksters -- with surgeon William "Wild Bill" Rienhoff (M.D.-1919) sitting on the front row with guests he had invited for the unveiling of his portrait -- removed the drape to reveal a realistic portrait of a horse's rear end. And the 1956 show, for instance, featured a student dressed as a giant penis. Early Hopkins research on artificial insemination was an inevitable target: In one 1930s show, after suspicious noises offstage to represent obtaining a specimen, a scientist appeared, proudly bearing a bowl of goldfish and dry ice, and shouted, "Look at the little bastards swim!"

The club's nadir, arguably, was the 1982 show, in which one female Hopkins faculty member was so offended by her portrayal that the club was threatened with legal action. "I have always been overjoyed at the fact that I did not go to that show," recalls Henry Seidel (M.D.-1946), who was dean of students then. The uproar over that show dogged the club for years and probably contributed to its demise 10 years later.

"The show was probably the tail that wagged the dog," says Seidel. "It stuck out like a big sore thumb." Seidel has seen the club -- which was private and thus not under the School of Medicine's control -- from both sides, as a faculty member, and as a student. "The show wasn't good," he says. On the other hand, he continues, the club itself did some good things. It was the only Hopkins club that admitted Jewish students when he was in medical school. And in 1980, it revived the popular Turtle Derby.

Harrell also emphasizes Pithotomy's positive side. "Most people know the club because of the show," he says. "But it really captured a lot of the spirit and tradition of Hopkins." For most of its existence the club was a haven, overseen by many of its alumni, who often dropped by for meals, conversation, a hand of bridge or poker (George Hoyt Whipple, M.D.-1905, who became a Nobel Laureate in 1934, was renowned for his "poker face"), a fierce game of tiddlywinks or pool, some after-dinner singing around the piano, or simply sitting on the white marble front steps, watching the world go by.

The Pithotomy boys.On the clubhouse steps, 1950s

During the show, 1930s
The founding members, 1897

There were also dances -- with Baltimore debutantes for dates -- in the spring and fall. During Prohibition, Pithotomists procured or made their own alcohol for these events. And on these occasions, the rowdy behavior -- typical fraternity stuff -- had nothing to do with the show. One neighbor wrote a letter to Henry Hurd complaining that "the behavior of the Doctor Club … is scandalous -- their beer parties lasting all night up until 2 o'clock in the morning -- keeping us up not getting any sleep with their screaming and running and playing the piano."

But such behavior seems to have inspired lasting and deeply felt camaraderie. Edward L. Trudeau, M.D., who founded the world's most famous tuberculosis sanatorium at Saranac Lake, N.Y., visited and was so touched by the club's hospitality that he wrote a check to pay for its new fireplace, "and have in a way a permanent place at the club's hospitable fireside." On the mantle in the dining room was engraved, "In memory of a pleasant evening spent with the boys, E.L.T., 1912." Pithotomy was in many ways an old boys' club, while the old boys were still young. Even now, the club's striped tie, designed by Ed Broyles (M.D.- 1919) in black, blue and green, and made by Brooks Brothers, is worn by some former Pithotomists on Wednesdays.

But as the years passed, student life and the neighborhood itself began to change, as Harrell points out. Until the 1960s, most house staff and medical students had lived near the Hospital. But gradually, he says, "the boarding houses disappeared, the remaining fraternities died, and students moved out to other parts of the city. Reed Hall [the student dormitory] became the chief source of housing for freshmen, but they usually moved away as soon as they could." The Pithotomy Club became the only place where students were able to become close friends with members of other classes, and not just their own classmates.

In the 1970s, the club's house was broken into repeatedly. Numerous framed photographs -- of each Pithotomy class from 1897 onward, and autographed faculty portraits dating back to Osler -- were stolen, although Harrell believes many of these were recovered in a Baltimore pawnshop.

In a final blow, Hopkins expanded again and the club had to move. It lingered briefly in a dismal rowhouse on Madison street -- a huge comedown from its glory days on Broadway. Then, the campus grew once more, and in 1992 the club building was donated to Hopkins, Harrell writes.

By then, of course, the world too had changed. The role of old boys' clubs -- even ones that eventually admitted women -- had grown dicey. In a 2002 letter to Johns Hopkins Magazine, William H. Jarrett II (M.D.-1958) wrote about the Pithotomy Club, of which he was president in 1958, "Alas, it is no more. The cause of death: chronic malignant political incorrectness in a politically correct world!"

But Henry Seidel attributes the club's demise to more than that. There's no doubt, he says that pressure by women students, who discouraged their male classmates from joining, probably hastened the end. But student apathy was the main reason it died. "It just petered out."

Robert Harrell has started a Web site about the Pithotomy club, at www.pithotomy.com.