To begin with Medical studies were little different from school. Quite a few lads from Watson’s were with me in the first year classes. The lectures were detailed and the task was to memorise what was taught and reproduce it in the exams. The most important subject was Anatomy and the main challenge was dissection. We spent many hours in the dissecting rooms, painstakingly cutting up the pickled bodies of aged paupers, teasing out every nerve, muscle and artery. We were examined every two weeks by Dr Jamieson a formidable, elderly figure who exposed our failings ruthlessly. I found dissecting interesting and challenging and got good marks. During that first year I lived in the "University Settlement" a student residence in the middle of a new working class estate at Prestonfield where I helped with the boys’ clubs and activities. This was my first time living away from home and was arranged by my mother to "rub off the rough edges". This certainly happened. The other residents disliked my arrogant garrulity and made this clear to me. I often felt very alone.
In accordance with my father’s plan I had been entered for his old college, King’s, Cambridge and I went there in October 1938. I was determined to follow in his footsteps, win scholarships, get First Class in the exams and prepare for my career as a research scientist. I was even going to row for the College as he had done (I had always admired the oar which hung in his study and the mugs on the mantelpiece).
These were stirring times. The shameful Munich Treaty was signed a few weeks before I started at Cambridge. Many older people were delighted that Chamberlain had obtained "Peace in Our Time" – but we youngsters, especially the left wingers amongst whom I moved, knew that it was only a breathing space and that war with Germany was inevitable. I spent much of my first year at Cambridge practising and studying in the Officer’s Training Corps and by the summer of 1939 was qualified to be an Artillery Officer. I took up rowing, and of course worked at my studies.
At first these seemed much the same – dissecting in the Anatomy Department, lectures in Physiology and Biochemistry, laboratory work in the afternoons. But I gradually found that it was different from Edinburgh. No one seemed to keep tabs on us whether we attended lectures or not. Professor Harris, the eccentric anatomist, told us that he did not mind whether we came to his lectures. It seemed to be up to us whether we worked or not. No one seemed to check our studies, though our personal lives in the College were strictly regulated with curfews, locked gates and Dean’s reports. Each week I had sessions with "Supervisors" – University teachers, many of them young – who gave me essays to write – which were often on subjects not in the lectures. They expected me to go to the library, explore the subjects for myself and to produce ideas about them. I found this perplexing and difficult. I found the exams in the summer difficult; the questions were vague and open ended and were often on subjects that had not been covered in the lectures. I did not do very well in those exams.
Then in the summer of 1939 came War. I hurried up to Cambridge expecting to join the Army as an Artillery Officer. To my surprise I was told that my duty was to carry on with my medical studies! They had plenty of junior artillery officers but expected to need many doctors later on. They refused to let medical students join the forces, and those who did were taken out and returned to their medical studies. So I returned to College determined to study harder. This I did, but the results were no better. It looked as if I might not get the desired "First" – First Class in the "Tripos" examination. Worse, as I got to know my fellow students, I realised that some of them were far brighter than I was, with lively minds that came up with surprising ideas from their reading and projects for research. I realised I was not in their class. I did not get a First, merely a Second Class; Father was deeply disappointed.
In other ways, however, my second year at Cambridge was fulfilling and exciting. I shared rooms in the 18th century Gibb’s Building of King’s with two other medical students, Bob Turner and Irvine Smith. We were the centre of a lively group of friends. The university was full of people waiting to be called up and the social life was very busy. I took full advantage of this. There was also a very active political life in which I joined with zest, learning about Marxism and anti-colonialism from the fervent student leaders, mostly devoted members of the Communist Party. There were great tussles and debates, particularly between the Communists and the Social Democrats with whom I allied myself, especially during the Soviet war against Finland in 1939. It was a strange winter as the main war seemed static and uneventful.
Suddenly in May and June 1940 while we were busy with our Tripos examinations, the war changed. Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and finally France all fell to the Germans and it seemed as if England would be invaded soon. I went home and my father found me a job as "student dresser" on the surgical wards of his friend James Learmonth. I found the work on the wards fascinating. I took blood, I attended operations, I "prepared" the patients; I talked with them at length, I saw some get better and others die. I had to learn new techniques and "aseptic procedure". I worked long hours and felt very satisfied. It was decided that I should not return for a third year of research in Cambridge but get on with my medical studies at Edinburgh. I joined the third year students at Edinburgh in October 1940.
In some ways this was a relief. I was back in the Scots system, attending endless lectures, memorising their contents and reproducing them at examination for good marks and applause. I was soon recognised as one of the leading students (academically) of the year and treated with respect. But in other ways it was a hard life. I lived at home, where my mother was bed-ridden and quite seriously ill with advancing tuberculosis. My father was overworked, harried and preoccupied. Food was becoming scarce. The war was going badly, with defeats everywhere. I found it difficult to fit in again with the hardworking, worthy, but dour Scots students and found my friends amongst the outsiders of the year. Soon I formed a trio with Dan Cunningham and Gus Born. (Gus as a German born Jewish refugee felt himself an outsider as did Dan who like me had left studies in the South (at Oxford) to join the Edinburgh students). The three of us became fast friends, working together and playing together.
However, the work had changed radically. Although we still spent many hours listening to lectures, for part of every day we were on the wards seeing real patients and learning about their illnesses. We had to "clerk" them, obtain their stories, carry out examinations, try to make a diagnosis – and then present our findings to the "Chief". I found the tales of their lives and the details of their sufferings and their illnesses fascinating and spent long hours working up their cases. This was "real medicine"; my studies at last began to seem relevant.
In the summer of 1941 my personal life changed dramatically. Father fell ill one weekend, was diagnosed as having intestinal obstruction, was operated on on the Monday and dead on Wednesday of "surgical shock". My mother was gravely ill (and expected to die soon). I was the eldest child and I was called on to be an Executor and Guardian to my younger brother and two sisters, all still at school. I spent many hours with lawyers and accountants. I had to shoulder a burden for which I felt little prepared. However it did teach me to take and accept responsibility. In other ways too, the summer of 1941 was hard for me. I was shortlisted for a Rockefeller scholarship to the United States but turned down by the interviewing board. I stood for the Editorship of the "Student" magazine and was not elected. No one seemed to think much of me. Yet for all these setbacks I felt more certain about myself. I was learning to be a doctor, looking after patients, and was enjoying it. I was preparing myself to be an Army Medical Officer in the fight against Fascism which was where I wanted to be. The war was going so badly in 1941, before Alamein, before Stalingrad, and before Pearl harbour, that I knew there would be plenty for me to do.
In these last three years at Edinburgh I shifted to another kind of learning. I had to master many practical procedures; I had to learn to listen to people, to assess their stories and make diagnoses – always imperfect and often wrong. I spent my vacations gaining further experience working on the wards in Edinburgh. In Easter 1942, I went to Dublin to learn and practise obstetrics at the Rotunda Hospital. That was an astonishing experience. In the slums of Dublin I saw poverty and squalor far worse than anything in even the poorest parts of Edinburgh. We medical students were sent out into the homes on our own to try and do our best for the unfortunate women in labour. We were greeted as "Doctor" and treated with gratitude and respect; although we were fully aware of our incompetence; we learned to hide our uncertainty – and the outcome was usually favourable.
As our "year" of students knitted together in all these experiences Dan, Gus and I emerged as a leading trio. We felt guilty about the fact that we were furthering our careers, while our school friends were serving and dying in the forces. We longed to get on and do our duty and in the summer of 1942 we developed a radical plan to finish our final year in six rather than twelve months. We took it to the Dean, Professor Sidney Smith, the professors accepted it and we and thirty other colleagues went forward in an accelerated course to qualify in January 1943 – six months early.
During these years we were taught about the medical specialities - surgery, medicine, obstetrics, pathology, psychiatry, dermatology, venereology etc. etc. Some subjects I found attractive, some repugnant. I knew then that my immediate task was to become an effective battlefield surgeon but I found psychiatry, as taught by Professor D. K. Henderson interesting and intriguing. It seemed to be about people, how they lived, felt, and thought about themselves and I found it more interesting than some of the more technical specialities. However my task was to become a surgeon. In the summer of 1942 James Learmonth asked me to act as a locum house surgeon for a very challenging month. The last six months of "accelerated" studies were very hard; we sat our finals at midwinter, and in January 1943 I was qualified. I well recall the delight of being addressed as "doctor" and my mother’s pride. I went straight into the Royal Infirmary, as house surgeon of the Professorial Wards 13 and 14 in the Royal Infirmary – one of the most prestigious jobs for the new graduates.