‘A Sacred Passion for Discovery’: Bad Students & Great Scholars.
“Our books of science are records of results rather than of that sacred passion for discovery that leads to them”.
A brief post – I was perusing Ronald Ross’ Memoirs and was struck by the unconventional honesty with which he relates his medical training as a young man. Moreover I discovered (to my delight) that students really never change and that despite his nobel-prize winning successes in later life, he initially considered himself an ‘uninteresting pupil’.
He tells us of his dreamy disposition – unsuited to science – preoccupied with daydreams of ‘golden cities, galleons on rolling seas […] mighty warriors and great victories’, and insists that he was ‘absolutely without conscious desire to become accomplished in any line.’ He remembers ‘study-parties’ and ‘wine-parties’ and relates animatedly how those eager to learn would sit at the front, whilst those ‘bad students’ would sit at the back and make noise, their boots resting on the benches in front of them. The ‘dull’ medical lecturer Dr Callender would reproach them with witticisms: ‘Ah, I have always heard that civilisation spreads from the centre outwards’. His memories are full of friendships with ‘better’ men and the secret solace of poetry, which he deems ‘word-music’. He jokes about a patient seeing ‘ter die’ on his bedhead ticket and running from the hospital in terror (abbreviation of ‘ter in die’ meaning ‘three times a day’). Another time he relates the story of a snowball fight which gets out of hand – one of the students accidentally hitting a policeman ‘full in the face’. The resulting confrontation ends in the outnumbered group of policemen being overpowered by the medical students and thrown out of the hospital gates. Ross laments his missing out on ‘most of the fun’ and the ‘resulting punishments’.
He tells of ‘less studious friendships’, annoying the neighbours with his piano-playing, neglecting his studies and his friend slowly pouring a glass of beer into the mouth of a trombone at the music-hall, their box being situating just above the unsuspecting trombone-player. The german musician was enraged, the audience ‘delighted’ and the pair expelled from the concert. He recounts boating on the Thames, discussing philosophy with beer and tobacco and ‘experience[ing] “life” ’. He wrote plays, composed music, painted, sculpted, secretly penned verse and all the while his mind grew ‘like a plant’ in the ‘soil of experience’ formed from the seed of medical inquiry.
But it was not all care-free – Ross warns of arrogance. Luck and coaching from a friend allowed him to pass the M.R.C.S exam with only 3 days reading, however this encouraged him to neglect his studies. He began his reading for the L.S.A. (Society for the Apothecaries in London) exam on the very morning he was to sit it, and quite predictably failed. This weighed heavily on his conscience because he knew he could have passed ‘easily’ had he ‘really tried’.
NB. This man would go on to serve as a physician in the Indian Medical Service, publish novels, plays and poems, become a well respected mathematician, be appointed as the first lecturer and professor of parasitology at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, become a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, vice-president of the Royal Society, a Companion and Knight Commander of the Most Royal Order of Bath, and the first British man to win a nobel prize in medicine.
 Ronald Ross, Memoirs, with a full account of the great malaria problem and its solution (London: John Murray, 1928) Kindle E-Book Facsimile.