Fifty years ago today the first cohort of UNSW Medicine students graduated at the Roundhouse in front of Nobel prize-winner Sir Macfarlane Burnett. The class of 61’ were risk takers; a brave group - of mainly teenagers - who signed up to be the faculty’s first students. They were drawn to the new, the innovative and the challenge of starting their medical careers at an institution initially declared to be a ‘crack brained plan’ by the Sydney Morning Herald. With such an auspicious start, it’s not surprising that these graduates have made such an impact on the communities they serve.
Dr David de Carle was part of this graduating cohort and recalls having no idea where his career would lead on the day he donned his cap and gown fifty years ago.
“We understood the science and art of Medicine quite well by graduation, but I didn’t have any real idea about the direction in which my career would go. It took two years to decide about specialising in Internal Medicine and about other six or seven years to settle on an academic career. These decisions were sometimes based on unexpected opportunities. I look back with great happiness and no regrets but cannot say that I knew where I was going when I graduated,” he said.
Another UNSW Medicine graduate from the class of '61 Dr Suzanne Whereat also reflected on the many unexpected aspects of her career. The most rewarding being that: “the compensation for the time taken from my personal life was rewarded by the privilege of becoming an important part of my patients' lives and that of the community.” As well as the many changes she has witnessed in the profession, one being a shift in gender equality.
“In our graduating year there were four women in the class. Now, I believe, 60 per cent of graduates from UNSW Medicine are women. Back then we were paid two thirds of the male rate during our hospital training for identical work and in many areas we were not considered to be a proper doctor because we were female. Now it is mostly not an issue. Equality is not there yet in all areas in medicine, but the change has been huge,” she said.
Last year, to commemorate their 50th anniversary graduates David De Carle, Jim Pollitt, and Sue Whereat published And Now From The Beginning, the stories of the pioneer students of the UNSW School of Medicine. This publication profiles students from the pioneer year recalling humorous and moving memories from each student’s university days as well as impressive professional achievements.
The stories are varied and vibrant and include anecdotes such as Ingrid Pacey recalling how nurses complained when she wore pants in the wards instead of a skirt. And Dr Whereat who bravely applied to enrol in the course without her parent’s knowledge after her dad told her that the profession was ‘too hard for a girl’ and ended up briefly doing relief work in obstetrics in Zululand.
The Afterword of the publication was written by retired Federal Court Magistrate Jillian Orchiston who notes the legacy many of the pioneering students derived from their unique experience as being the ‘principles of innovation and leadership’ which had a profound impact on their later professional careers and on the significant contributions they made to medicine.
“The innovative and experimental spirit that fashioned their pioneer student days is reflected in the depth of their individual contributions to medicine at regional, national and international levels – in the UK, the US and as far flung as Zululand, Nepal and Papua New Guinea,” she wrote.
While a lot has changed since Dr de Carle and Dr Whereat graduated, both agree that the keys to being a successful medical professional haven’t changed much. With Dr de Carle advising current students to maintain your enthusiasm, choose your own path and do not be deterred by inevitable setbacks and Dr Whereat advising new medical students to always remember they are not treating an illness, or the print out of the technology, but treating a person with an illness.
“With that goes respect for the patient, the patient's personal and cultural attitude to their illness and what their needs are to cope with their illness apart from just medication. And while students today are graduating in a different world and their needs and those of their patients will differ largely from ours , I hope some of the core values of our profession will continue.”