Check the list of student groups at the Medical College of Georgia and it reads like a list of professional organizations – the American Medical Association and the American Student Dental Association top the list.
But in years past, with its yearbook, intramural sports program and active Greek system, MCG’s student life more closely resembled an undergraduate university.
Dr. James Puryear was vice president of Student Affairs from 1970 to 2000. He remembers a time when the Student Government Association
planned and funded almost all extracurricular activities.
“Unlike some campuses, they had complete control of SGA money,” he said. “They had a social gathering once a month. In those days, they could serve beer on campus. But they usually brought in professional-level entertainment.”
Jeff Dunham, the ventriloquist and stand-up comedian, was one such performer that SGA hosted.
Puryear said the school also hosted a rugby club that played teams from other towns, a rowing club, soccer leagues and a strong intramural basketball and softball program. The student center was always full of students shooting pool and playing table tennis. And the classes would host a formal every year.
WORK HARD, PLAY HARD
In the intense academic crunch that is medical school, having active Hellenic organizations was important to Dr. Peter Payne (’64), a retired obstetrician-gynecologist in Augusta.
“It was your social outlet,” Payne said. “Your peers were all experiencing the same things you were – you were studying all the time – and I felt like if you had not been in the group, you really would not have had a much social contact.”
Payne was a member of Phi Rho Sigma, an international coeducational fraternity for medical students – as was Dr. Leslie Wilkes, (’65), an orthopedic surgeon in Savannah, who sums up the grind of medical school succinctly.
“All I did was study,” Wilkes said.
He remembers taking gross anatomy in the mornings and microscopic anatomy in the afternoons for two quarters – about six months. They also attended Saturday classes. All in a lab without air conditioning. It got so hot, Wilkes said, that the medical students would remove the pants and shirts under their white coats, and do lab work in their underwear and lab coats. On top of that, Wikes worked in the blood bank at University Hospital, and later for MCG’s Department of Anesthesiology. So if not for his membership in Phi Rho Sigma, he may never have seen the light of day.
Not that even membership in a social organization was a cakewalk for him, because Wilkes managed the fraternity’s house in exchange for free room and board. He oversaw the meal planning and managed the maids for the 15 members who lived at the home on Troupe Street, where Southern Eye Care currently sits. The fraternity threw several parties a year; two were themed: the Pajama Party in February and the French Party in May. The other parties were named by the gallons of grain alcohol they had procured.
“So we’d have a Five Grain Party – once, we had a Seven Grain party. We could only buy a pint at a time, so it took a while to build up enough for a party,” Wilkes said. He said they usually bought the alcohol off an embalmer at the school and made bathtub gin and a concoction called Purple Jesus.
“That stuff was dangerous,” he laughed. “But we didn’t know. We were young.”
There were no sororities on campus when Dr. Lois Ellison arrived on campus in 1940 as a 19-yearold University of Georgia graduate and member of Alpha Delta Pi. Ellison, MCG’s Medical Historian in Residence, was one of only three women in her class.
She recalls a Greek system in which almost every student was a member of a fraternity: “It was a big part of the school,” she said.
She related a story about attending a Theta Kappa Pi party that ended with a visit from friendly but firm police officers after noise complaints from neighbors.
“I thought, ‘What have I gotten into?’ The police came and they were very nice. But I worried about it getting back to UGA,” she laughed.
One of the events that might have shocked a young ingénue was the annual university roast, called “Stunt Nite.” The event filled an evening with skits and talent exposition, not unlike an end-of-summer-camp talent night but for the lack of lanyards.
“It got a little rough, and they did away with it for a few years,” Wilkes said, with a chuckle. “But it was just medical students blowing off some steam. They’re under a lot of pressure.”
Puryear remembers that students made fun of professors, classes and administration – just about anything.
“Sometimes they’d have some pretty good talent, and work up choreography and such. They were a creative bunch. They had a theme one year that was a take-off on a Broadway play, and they paraphrased the song “What I Did for Love” with “What I Did for Grades.”
STUDENTS ON PARADE
As years passed, the production got “out of hand,” he said, and the school also had to crack down on students sneaking in alcohol.
For years, MCG also hosted a parade down Laney Walker Boulevard during the week of Homecoming.
“It started out a pretty decent parade – and then it digressed into a water balloon fight,” Puryear said. He chuckled when he remembers the arsenal that the dental students arrayed.
“I think there might have been a catapult,” he said.
At least once, the dental students found a way to flood the street. Then the dental students would line up at the windows overlooking Laney Walker Boulevard and attack the medical students as they walked or rode by during the Homecoming parade. Over time, the activities frayed the nerves of some administrators.
Wilkes said that the student organizations provided activities, social interaction and, in the case of the Greek houses, a place to come in from the cold or heat and regular hot meals to hard-studying med students.
That touchstone was important, because the students were also very competitive, Wilkes said.
“It was dog-eat-dog,” he laughed. In anatomy practicals, for example, professors would place a pin in the organ or structure that students were to identify on the test. The more aggressive students might move the pin to another point on the body. But Wilkes jokes that there were students who would have poisoned the water supply to get ahead.
And so the student organizations provided a safe aura of camaraderie, where students could relax and socialize without worrying about class ranking or exam grades.
Masters Week was a big part of the year, according to Wilkes. “At the time, one could still purchase Masters tickets. Masters was a really big deal for us. The med students would bring a picnic and camp out on the 16th hole, a position that allowed them to see the golfers play through the hole from start to finish.”
When he left Augusta, the tickets followed him to his next residence in North Carolina. Not knowing the tournament would grow into one of the most exclusive tickets in sports, he sent them back, and said he didn’t want them anymore.
“I didn’t think I’d ever be back to Augusta,” he said.
GOODBYE TO GREEKS
While honorary societies using Greek nomenclature are still around, traditional Hellenic councils have faded over time, and not only at medical schools. Not only does Phi Rho Sigma, for example, no longer have a chapter at MCG, but the organization no longer boasts one in Georgia or South Carolina.
Ellison is a supporter of the Greek system.
“For the most part, they were very good, because they encouraged friendships, and members would help each other academically,” Ellison said.
But she said that the model was harder to support once the school expanded to include nursing and allied health students.
Puryear suspects it wasn’t the disciplines, but the size of the school that changed participation on campus. The student body was much smaller when he oversaw Student Affairs.
“You knew almost everybody in school – in all classes, really,” he said.
Payne said that regardless of whether the organization was social or service-oriented, it provided a touchstone for like-minded students.
“I think it really bred a sense of loyalty to the school,” he said.
These days, professional development and academics are the focus for students at MCG. But Puryear sees value in interaction between the disciplines, especially since they will almost all work in the same industry.
“I was always a big proponent of the idea that students will work together, so they need to be doing something together. There needs to be something social,” he said. But he said that he’s encouraged by the school’s efforts to encourage student social services, like volunteering at low-income clinics downtown.
“That’s an opportunity to work together,” he said.