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A Memorable ‘Year’ 1953-1958
There is a wicked inclination in most people to suppose an old man decayed in his intellect. People will shrug
up their shoulders, and say, ‘His memory is going’.
It does not surprise me that so many veterans of World War II are able to recall their personal experiences in minute detail. A great sense of comradeship and a steep learning curve coming, as it did, at a young and impressionable age, left an indelible mark upon their lives. To a lesser extent the same could be said of time at university as a dental student. So fresh are the memories that it is hard for me to believe that it was around fifty years ago! As students we certainly enjoyed a great spirit of comradeship, and a common goal, not so much to ‘defeat the enemy’ as ‘fool the examiners’!
Our ‘year’ was more diverse, perhaps, than it would be today. Most students came, fresh faced from school, straight into second year, having satisfied some examiners long the way that they knew a little physics, chemistry and biology at ‘A’ level. A few came up having done their sciences in first year at University. They knew their way around. Some came from the Armed Services, having done their National Service. They really did know their way around! There was just a handful of students from overseas, and four girls.
It was still something of a curiosity that girls should want to study dentistry in those days. A cynical journalist, interviewing one of the girls, said to her, “I expect you will give up dentistry and go off and get married as soon as you qualify.”
“No,” she replied, “I intend to practice for a while first!” Unlike the way young people interact today, there was, in general, still a polite deference towards the fair sex at this time. Not so in dental school. The girls had to live day to day with our male chauvinistic undergraduate humour full in their faces. They coped admirably, of course, treating the constant onslaught of lavatorial humour very effectively with an air of bored superiority. They did, however, contribute to our first Carnival float. The theme was ‘Re-arming the Jerries’, which was a subject of topical debate at the time. I will not trouble to describe the obvious interpretation and depiction of the theme!
I think once was enough for the girls. I don’t recall them taking an active part in the ‘Dental Bug’ tableau. I suspect they did not relish the thought of going round the carnival route trapped under a sheet of canvas with a dozen of the lads!
We were a little rowdy, as I recall. At least two lecturers walked out on us, refusing to continue their lectures. One overseas student was reading his ‘Daily Worker’ in the lecture theatre just prior to the start of class. Someone put a lighted match to the bottom of the page he was reading. It was well alight before he noticed. When the lecturer arrived, the fire had been put out, but the room was still full of smoke It was a bit of fun to roll balls of plaster of paris down the steps of the tiered lecture theatre during a lecture. They would gather speed as they descended the steps and crash violently against the lecturer’s podium.
On one occasion, a lecturer, judged (by us!) to be full of hot air, had twenty fart balloons let off simultaneously at one point during his lecture. He saw the funny side of the prank, waited with patient good humour as they farted their way slowly up to the ceiling. When the commotion died down, he carried on with his lecture without comment as if nothing had happened. From that moment on, his personal stock went up in our estimation!
Smoked drums, of the kind used in making traces of frogs’ hearts were potentially a source of mischief One of the lads, with blackened hands, faked a stumble against one of the girls and managed to plant two black hand prints on her backside. The girl walked around the Medical School for about two hours in the same white coat before she realised why people were giving her bemused looks.
The Junior Operator Course, at the Barwick Street premises, saw no let up in the potential for high jinks. Tutors became frustrated as their mixing spatulas mysteriously disappeared in the middle of demonstrations, or when their cold glass mixing slabs became inexplicably heated up while their backs were momentarily turned. Someone was stuffed down the plaster chute, and a secretary, who worked in a small office adjacent to where the students were working, left her office for a few moments and returned to find a bare room. Every file, every piece of paper, her typewriter and every stick of furniture had ‘disappeared’. Any female student who was ‘difficult’ was lifted bodily on to the top of the lockers and left there until she ‘behaved’ (The feminist movement had yet to reach its zenith!) The students, of course, had nothing to do with any of these things!
It was during this time that we had the ‘OHO’ campaign. On every blackboard, in every filing cabinet, pile of papers or cupboard and drawer, there was a notice declaring “OHO will get you!” Distribution of the warning was absolutely massive within the department. It was not possible to visit a notice board, a pigeon hole, or even put your hand in your own pocket without being reminded by a piece of paper that OHO would get you! This crazy campaign lasted about two weeks during which time one of our tutors became quite paranoid. He really did not know whether he was supposed to be OHO or whether OHO was really coming to get him! No one, of course, was able to enlighten him on the subject. It was yet another jolly distraction from the more serious matter of unsupported enamel.
Not quite so jolly was a visit from the Consultant Orthodontist who was trying to hold a clinic on the floor below, directly underneath the Junior Op. Lab. “The noise” he said, quietly but very firmly, “was quite unacceptable – particularly the singing!” He continued with a veiled threat saying that he found it quite interesting the way that very noisy students seemed to have a high failure rate in their examinations! It would have been reassuring for the general public to know that by the time students reached the clinical stage of their training, their high spirits had calmed down. It would have been reassuring, had it been true. That is not to say that even in the most serious environments funny things did not happen spontaneously and very publicly. For example, one student administering an inferior dental block to a patient sitting in the back row of dental chairs in the infamous Room 7 somehow managed to position the needle on the wrong side of the ascending ramus. The needle came out through the patient’s cheek and the anaesthetic solution was sprayed over the waiting patients sitting on the benches immediately behind. The patients’ waiting area suddenly cleared and we all went for an extended coffee break.
A student in the Prosthetics Department was asked to take a full upper impression for dentures for a Greek orthodox priest who sported a full black beard and voluminous black clerical dress including tall black hat. On the face of it no great problem, except that the tutor wanted the impression taken in plaster of Paris. (Yes, we had to do that in those days.) The student mixed the material a little on the runny side and as he inserted it into the patient’s mouth it ran back over the student’s hand, down into the priest’s black beard, between the bib, the black clerical robes and into the priest’s lap. The student had no option but to hold on to the tray while the remainder of the impression material set in the patient’s mouth. He shuffled with embarrassment and accidentally tilted the priest’s hat to a crazy angle. There he had to stand for several minutes, in view of everybody, until the material finally set and he was able to start cleaning up. Fortunately the patient was a holy man, who did not speak English. He smiled benignly and blessed the student before leaving the department. It was necessary for the priest to attend the department for three further appointments at weekly intervals. Even at the end of this time, when his dentures had been made and fitted, he still had not been able to clean all the plaster from his beard.
I believe our tutors were well aware of how hard we were having to work at our studies and appreciated the esprit de corps which existed amongst us. They knew there was a lot of fun to be had with our year, and as long as we continued to work hard, they went along with it and sometimes even wanted to join in. For example, the staff/student golf matches were always hilarious occasions. At Freshers’ Socials, the time honoured tradition of writing stage sketches which made fun of the tutors, was greatly extended. The Director and Deputy Director of Dental Studies asked if they could also take part in the shows and join in the fun. Others followed and a great relationship developed between staff and students at this time. The Director’s sense of humour was tested to the full when, unknown to him, a small group from our year set up a rival interview panel for real prospective dental students on the same day as their serious interview. Dressed in white coats, sitting behind an impressive desk in an unused office, we called in the hapless young ‘A’ Level interviewees one by one. The prank would have gone undiscovered by the authorities but for one of the applicants saying to the real interview panel that he had already been asked the same question downstairs. This brought the Director downstairs like a thunderbolt to disperse the rival interview panel. He did admit afterwards that he thought it was a clever and imaginative prank
The Director, however, was not best pleased when the dental rugby team was reported to have narrowly avoided a night in police custody after an incident in which the policeman at the entrance to the Mersey Tunnel was sprayed with beer from the team coach on its way to play Liverpool dentals. We forgot that there was a police presence at the other end of the tunnel waiting for us! I feel very fortunate indeed to have studied dentistry in ‘my year’ at Birmingham during this time with such excellent companions, both staff and student. I suspect things are a lot more serious today!