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My View: New med school has a memorable foundation

By Larry Beahan

The new University at Buffalo medical school downtown is an architectural wonder. I stand in amazement at its soaring glass, seven-story, light-filled atrium, its terracotta “rainscreen” exterior and its statuary-adorned subway station basement.

My heart and mind spin back to 1951 when I enrolled in UB’s medical school, then housed in a very different building on virtually the same spot at Main and High streets. Mine was the last class to use this lowering brick and red-sandstone Italian Renaissance palazzo. After us, the medical school retreated to subdued yellow-brick quarters on Bailey Avenue.

When I was 12 I walked past the old medical school to swim at the Buffalo Turn Verein building just down High, at Ellicott Street. On my right was a saddlery shop with a horse mannequin. On my left was the medical school. Students in white coats lounged on low stone walls before it. The building’s oversized, arched double doors, I was told, were there so carriages could be driven inside and professors could debark their carriages protected from the weather.

Indeed, when I had the privilege of entering those doors, the interior court was spacious enough to accommodate a carriage and team of horses. A short flight of deeply worn stone steps led arrivals from there up into classrooms, offices and labs.

Time dims my recollections. I have no photos of the interior. But the vision I retain of our medical library easily rivals that seven-story atrium of the modern building. Instead of bright vastness, our library was snug, dim and mythically comfortable. The walls were stone, the passages arched, the tables of heavy planks. The whole was surrounded by a balcony of tiny study alcoves. Books upon ancient books lined the shelves.

In 1893 at the old school’s dedication, Dr. Charles Cary said: “It was partly for the sake of this educating influence, as well as for economy, strength, safety, and cleanliness, that the open system of internal construction was adopted, which avoids all concealed spaces, and exposes every plank and timber and every pipe to view – so that a walk through the building may be said to be a lesson in anatomy.”

That may be so but we learned our anatomy in the lab from 20 generous, deceased human beings, poised on stark metal tables and covered with sheets. The shocking experience of dissecting their flesh set us apart from others forever. I remember, with mixed terror and affection, professor Oliver P. “O.P.” Jones, who guided us through that experience.

I see him now, tall, balding, bespectacled standing before the 5-foot-wide kidney-shaped mahogany table in the pit of the school amphitheater, a wry smile on his face, about to crack a joke or make a critical point.

Saturday mornings were osteology recitation. We called it “blood letting.” O.P. would pick up a femur or metatarsaland say, “Beahan, give us the name of this bone and point out its muscle attachments … if you think you can.”

Pray God, I remembered or died under O.P’s scorn.

We had our revenge. Anatomists give their names to anatomical details. O.P. had a pot belly. When he leaned back, his white shirt opened above his belt. This anatomic space has become “the triangle of Jones.”

I rode the streetcar down Main to school, lugging a microscope in a 30-inch wooden case, and books. Now subway trains will deposit modern students directly indoors almost where O.P.’s blood sport took place. The basement subway will make the trip considerably easier but it can’t compare to the elegance of the old carriage way entrance.

Larry Beahan, M.D., a retired psychiatrist, lives in Amherst.
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