What Makes a Premed

Rethinking the Way We Become Doctors

Down beneath the Science Center, between maintenance shops and the closed doors of laboratories, Geyser University Professor Henry Rosovsky, who co-teaches the overcrowded core course "Tradition and Transformation in East Asian Civilizations: Japan"--commonly known as "Rice Paddies"--glances over his notes before entering the lecture hall.

Into the windowless antechamber walks Baird Professor of Science Dudley R. Herschbach, just finished with his early morning freshman Chemistry 7 lecture. Hershbach, Harvard's most active professor in the drive to "humanize" science curricula, throws a pointed question at the unsuspecting Rosovsky.

"You tell the students, of course, the most important thing?...why it's rice paddies and not wheat?"

Apparently, Rosovsky does not tell his students "the most important thing," and Hershbach must explain that billions of East Asians have cultivated rice for thousands of years because rice doesn't deplete soil nutrients.

Hershbach's aim is not to chalk up another point for science, but rather to debunk the myth that science and the social concerns of the humanities are "two cultures" radically opposed to each other.

The students who suffer most from that myth are the premeds. Contrary to the spirit of a liberal arts education, premedical students, striving for one of the precious spots in a medical school, devote more than one-third of their college educations to preparing for medicine. The rigorous requirements, as Assistant Professor of the History of Medicine and Science Allan Brandt puts it, "have polluted undergraduate education."

Yet, while both medicine and education have changed radically in recent years, the philosophy behind the premedical curriculum for years changed very little.

That is, until now.

In response to criticism of medical education form both faculty and students at Harvard and across the nation, Herschbach and other Harvard experts--including Gerald S. Foster, dean of admissions at Harvard Medical School--have taken the initiative and instituted changes in the chemistry curriculum.

The new "life science"-oriented Chemistry 17 and 27 sequence, specifically designed for premeds, is expected to clear up the organic chemistry bottleneck. In the past, both chemistry concentrators and premeds had been funneled through the same notorious course, Chemistry 20, despite their widely different educational needs.

Furthermore, Foster and other concerned faculty, in a drive coordinated by Hope W. Wigglesworth, premedical counselor at the Office of Career Services (OCS), have sent letters to the deans of the nation's 127 medical schools requesting that they accept Harvard's new chemistry courses for admissions.

The letter specifically calls for overall changes in medical school admissions policy, including a provision to allow Advanced Placement (AP) test scores in chemistry and physics to count toward admissions requirements. Herschbach, chairman of the Curriculum Committee in Chemistry, sees these reforms as steps in a "larger campaign to encourage medical schools to define admissions criteria by content, not by 'units.'"

Early responses have shown widespread receptiveness to the plan. And as of the summer, 13 medical schools, including those at Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago, and Case Western, had accepted the reforms.

The move to alter the premedical curriculum follows criticisms such as those noted by President Bok in his 1983-84 annual report, where he called for an end to the intrusion of medical school admissions policy on undergraduate education.

At Harvard, Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence plans to establish a formal committee comprising faculty from both the College and the Medical School to "work out a proposal for premedical education [and] produce a viable plan or set of options."

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