Tom Goodfellow

Baffled by first step on to medical ladder

To this day, I have no idea how I managed to get a place in medical school! I suppose that as a Christian I should claim divine providence, but I am not that super-spiritual being more of a “God helps those who help themselves” type of person.

Now don’t get me wrong – I believe that I was well suited to medicine and have been a good doctor with a happy and successful career behind me. I still get a buzz out of draining a horrendous pelvic collection resulting in a grateful patient and happy surgeons.

I enjoy the expression of relief on the face of a terrified patient who did not actually notice that I had both started and completed the interventional procedure without causing any pain or distress.

But how I got onto the ladder in the first place still baffles me, and the reason for my confusion is simple – I was a grammar school boy and not from a prestigious public school.

Back in the sixties that mattered a lot; more than 80% of my year were public school educated (and only 10% were female). The ability to play rugby was an advantage, and having a father in the profession also counted so I failed to impress in every respect. An individual with these qualifications did not necessarily need to be a high academic achiever and reasonable A-levels were adequate rather than the multiple A*’s which seem to be required today.

(My own grades were less than stunning – not because I was not clever enough but because I did not learn how to learn until I started university.)

But the public school lads had a swagger and confidence about them which carried them through the interview process with ease. They were well coached in the social graces and not afraid to express an opinion. You could almost hear the professors on the interview panel mutter that the candidate may not have been the brightest flower in the forest, but he was the right sort of chap, a good prop forward, “and anyway I was at school with his father”.

I, on the other hand, was quiet and rather mousey. I had no great achievements and my only claim to fame was that I once had a leading role in an amateur production on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. But I passionately wanted to be a doctor from childhood. A favourite uncle was a GP in a small town in Scotland with the surgery attached to the house.

Happy summers were spent exploring the surgery (when not being used), playing with the stethoscopes and sphygmomanometer, and I can still smell today the disinfectant in the jars containing the re-usable needles for suturing.

My own interview was a disaster! I stuttered and mumbled, and was generally very poorly prepared. When asked why I preferred surgery to medicine I remarked naively that I wanted to help people, at which point the whole panel guffawed. I must have seemed hopelessly out of my depth and left the room flushed with embarrassment and a sense of hopelessness.

Nevertheless several weeks later a letter arrived from the university admissions board offering me a place at the London Hospital Medical College to start in autumn 1967 and the rest is history.

Of course it has all changed today and the selection process purports to be much more robust and fair. I read with interest Caroline Whymark’s recent piece on the selection of medical students in Glasgow.

When I started my training I initially felt quite intimidated by and socially inferior to the large cohort of public school lads in my year. But as time went on they became my mates and all differences fell away as together we faced the challenge of the examiners and house jobs. By and large we all made the grade whatever the inequalities of the selection process.

However I have one darker secret to reveal. My mother, a nurse, was acquainted with one of the senior consultants at the London. I do not know for sure but I have a suspicion that she contacted him and asked him to put in a good word for me. If true it would be a quite disgraceful example of inappropriate patronage, but I will never know for sure.

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2 Responses to “Baffled by first step on to medical ladder”

  1. Malcolm Morrison says:

    I can sympathise (or should that be empathise?) with this. Almost exactly similar experience – but I did captain ythe ‘Under 14s’ at cricket!

    I think our experience shows that good doctors (yes we can both blow our own trumpets!) can come from varied backgrounds; that academic achievement at school is not essential; but the ability to ‘get on’ with people matters – and one needs a large ‘spoonful’ of luck (rather then medicine) to ‘get on’ in the profession!

  2. Bob Bury says:

    I was a Grammar School boy too, and often wonder if I would have made it to medical school (or university at all) without it. Kids growing up on that same council estate today won’t have the same opportunity I had, but never mind – mediocrity for all – that socialist nirvana – has been achieved.

    Mind you, even with the Grammar School’s help, I only managed 2 B’s and 2 D’s at A-level, which certainly wouldn’t be good enough today!

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