From: DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE
By R. Gordon
Richard Gordon was born in 1921. He has been an anaesthetist at St. Bartholomew's Hospital,1 a ship's surgeon and an assistant editor of the British Medical Journal. He left medical practice in 1952 and started writing his "Doctor" series. "Doctor in the House" is one of Gordon's twelve "Doctor" books and is noted for witty description of a medical student's years of professional training.
To a medical student the final examinations are something like death: an unpleasant inevitability to be faced sooner or later, one's state after which is determined by care spent in preparing for the event. An examination is nothing more than an investigation of a man's knowledge, conducted in a way that the authorities have found the most fair and convenient to both sides. But the medical student cannot see it in this light. Examinations touch off his fighting spirit; they are a straight contest between himself and the examiners, conducted on well-established rules for both, and he goes at them like a prize-fighter. There is rarely any frank cheating in medical examinations, but the candidates spend almost as much time over the technical details of the contest as they do learning general medicine from their textbooks. Benskin discovered that Malcolm Maxworth was the St. Swithin's representative on the examining Committee and thenceforward we attended all his ward rounds, standing at the front and gazing at him like impressionable music enthusiasts at the solo violinist. Meanwhile, we despondently ticked the days off the calendar, swotted up the spot questions, and ran a final breathless sprint down the well-trodden paths of medicine. The examination began with the written papers. A single invigilator2 sat in his gown and hood on a raised platform to keep an eye open for flagrant cheating. He was helped by two or three uniformed porters who stood by the door and looked dispassionately down at the poor victims, like the policemen that flank the dock at the Old Bailey.3 Three hours were allowed for the paper. About half-way through the anonymous examinees began to differentiate themselves. Some of them strode up for an extra answer book, with an awkward expression of self-consciousness and superiority in their faces. Others rose to their feet, handed in their papers and left. Whether these people were so brilliant they were able to complete the examination in an hour and a half or whether this was the time required for them to set down unhurriedly their entire knowledge of medicine was never apparent from the nonchalant air with which they left the room. The invigilator tapped his bell half an hour before time; the last question was rushed through, then the porters began tearing papers away from gentlemen dissatisfied with the period allowed for them to express themselves and hoping by an incomplete sentence to give the examiners the impression of frustrated brilliance. I walked down the stairs feeling as if I had just finished an eight-round fight. In the square outside the first person I recognized was Grimsdyke. "How did you get on?" I asked.
"So-so," he replied. "However, I am not worried. They never read the papers anyway. Haven't you heard how they mark the tripos4 at Cambridge, my dear old boy? The night before the results come out the old don totters bade, from hall and chucks the lot down the staircase. The ones that stick on the top flight are given firsts,5 most of them end up on the landing and get seconds, thirds go to the lower flight, and any reaching the ground floor are failed. This system has been working admirably for years without arousing any comment." The unpopular oral examination was held a week after the papers. The written answers have a certain remoteness about them, and mistakes and omissions, like those of life, can be made without the threat of immediate...