The Great Pre-Med Boom
The desire to be a doctor is suddenly grabbing hold of more and more Harvard and Radcliffe students.
Although official statistics are still unavailable, premedical advisors at three Harvard Houses estimated independently that the number of Harvard seniors applying to medical school this year exceeded last year's figure by 20 per cent.
At Radcliffe the number of applicants has risen from 30 two years ago to about 50 this year.
The number of special students enrolled in a fifth year to complete pre-medical requirements jumped from nine last year to 15 this year. This means six more seniors had last minute changes of heart and decided to be doctors.
A jump in enrollments in basic pre-medical courses strongly suggests that the recent development is only the beginning of a trend.
The Biology 2 enrollment jumped from 215 last year to 363 this year. Chemistry 20 had 244 students last fall, compared to 205 the fall before. The ranks of premed physics have swelled similarly over the past year, from 141 to 233 in Physics 1 and from 138 to 157 in Physics 12.
According to assistant professor D. Michael Gill, five-sixths of last semester's Biology 2 students-of whom nearly all are freshmen and sophomores-said they were interested in going to medical school.
While the total number of applicants to American medical schools has risen constantly and sharply since the beginning of the last decade-from 14,000 in 1960 to a record 26,000 this year-the number applying from Harvard hovered around 180 from 1960 until this year, when a figure closer to 215 is expected.
Why do so many Harvard students suddenly want to become physicians?
"What else is there to do?" responded an Adams House sophomore, when recently asked by a doctor why he planned a medical career.
The spectrum of careers deemed suitable by Harvard students has shrunk considerably over the past few years, said James D. Wickenden, associate director of the OG and CP. Students shy away from business careers, fearing that "their identities would be subsumed and their energies misdirected," he said.
Adam M. Keller '73 said, "The business career has acquired a stigma it didn't possess a few years ago. Students think of business careers as money-oriented and as careers in which they won't be able to question the use to which their work is put."
The number of Harvard seniors planning business careers decreased from 147 in 1960 to 30 last year.
Interest in doing scientific research has also taken a big spill.
The Federal Government cutback in funds for research-which resulted in bleak job opportunities for scientists-and the dissatisfaction among scientifically-minded students with the ivory-tower nature of most laboratory research have probably effected this change.
"I really like science, but I can't imagine spending my life playing with test tubes," said Stephen N. Oesterle '73. "I have a big interest in people, too. As a doctor, I think a can realize both of my interests."
Dr. Paul Arkema, Winthrop House pre-medical advisor, said, "People who might otherwise have gone to research science are now flooding into medicine."
According to Frederic J. Fox '68, pre-medical advisor at Adams House, there is much more money available in combined M. D., Ph.D. programs than there is in graduate or postgraduate programs in biology, chemistry, or physics.
For those who, as President Pusey once described them, "insist on seeking their private goals in social terms," medicine is a logical alternative. Society and government are calling for the delivery of more health care to those who previously have not been able to afford it.
Five years ago the call was for doctors with an interest in scientific research, according to Dr. Daniel H. Funkenstein, an expert in medical trends and a psychiatrist at the Harvard Medical School.
According to Funkenstein, "The reinforcement of students by their peers, society, the government and foundations has shifted away from science to the work in the community. The delivery of health care has become the 'in thing.'"
In the cities there is currently one doctor practicing medicine for roughly every 10,000 people, while in the suburbs there is one doctor for approximately every 700.
"I think there are at least a few more people entering medicine because of a burning desire for social reform," said Fox.
"Students are making their own assessments of where the problems of today's society are and in most cases, these problems come back to medicine," said Dr. Leroy A. Resch of the University of Buffalo.
"Population control, the squandering of resource, pollution-all of these are related to medicine. Health is involved in many social problems-poverty and malnutrition, for example," he said.
One Radcliffe senior who plans to attend medical school next fall said, "I wanted to have some concrete skills to offer to the community. I think medicine is very compatible with that goal."
"I think I can do a lot more for the community as a doctor than I can in any other way," said David C. Chin '71, who plans to enter Harvard Medical School next fall.
Eric G. Wedum '71 said he thinks that the political activity at Harvard over the last three years has contributed to the rise of medical school interest.
"My class entered when Vietnam, poverty, and civil rights were really becoming burning issues. We were charged with a desire to help mankind," he said.
"Some decided to go to medical school, while many others decided to major in government, planning to do social service through politics. I was one of them, but I have slowly discovered that politics wasn't for me. I don't think I could be comfortable as a politician, but that I could be as a doctor," he said.
Wedum now plans to complete the pre-medical requirements as a special student next fall, before applying to medical school.
Frustration with the political system seems to be changing the plans of many to medicine. "I considered going to law school, but a feeling of political alienation made me drop those plans," said a Radcliffe social studies major who is now pre-med.
The approach of graduation also seems to be driving people toward medical school. "I was hassled by the draft, hassled by what I was going to do. Graduation made my consider long-term goals and forced me to look for a specific direction," said David C. Logan '70, a special student who plans to attend medical school in the fall.
Assurance of a high-paying job undoubtedly motivates many students to enter medicine. While other job markets are shrinking, the demand for doctors is at a new high.
Both Fox and Arkema say they have noticed that financial motives are big among those planning to enter medicine from Harvard.
Wedum said he thought that the increase in scholarship students at Harvard had added to the number of pre-medical students.
"I would have been premed long ago if I had had to worry about money at all. People who are aware of the fact that little green slips don't float through the mail will tend to look for something secure," Wedum said.
The rise in the number of Harvard pre-medical students comes despite increasingly intense competition for a limited number of places at the 180 American medical schools. Nearly 15 per cent of the medical school applicants in the class of 1970 were turned down at all their choices. Pre-medical advisors predict that figure will increase.