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Early Anatomists

Anatomy, one of the fundamental disciplines in health sciences education, includes embryology, physiology, gross anatomy, histology, and molecular genetics, and all medical students needed to master these subjects. From the early 1920s through the late 1980s, students participated in at least one class taught by John S. Latta, PhD, Edward A. Holyoke, MD, PhD, and C. W. M. Poynter, MD. These professors frightened and inspired students in equal measure and are legends within UNMC folklore.

 

Kenneth Metcalf, MD, Edward Holyoke, MD, PhD, and John Latta, MD, converse in front of a portrait of Charles Poynter, MD, c. 1980

 

"Welcome to your start in medicine. Embryology is an excellent elimination course!”

John S. Latta, MD, to first-year medical students on their first day of class.

John S. Latta, MD, in his office, 1954

From the McGoogan Health Sciences Library Special Collections and Archives

John S. Latta, MD

Born in North Tonawanda, New York, John Latta, MD, came to the University of Nebraska College of Medicine in 1921 as an assistant professor of anatomy. With a reputation for unrelenting toughness and the ability to strike terror into the hearts of students, Dr. Latta was also deeply respected. He taught embryology and histology from 1921 to 1963 and chaired the anatomy department from 1940 to 1960. In 1980, the Latta Lectureship was established in honor of his distinguished service to UNMC.

 

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Dr. John Latta, 1983

Transcript

 

John Latta: I think it is the duty of every teacher in a medical school to try to get the students to understand something beside the actual facts and that is how to treat people. How to understand people and I always bore down a little on that when I was actually teaching students. And I think that most of the students felt gratified to have such interest shown in their welfare.

 

 

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Stanley Truhlsen, MD, 2020

Transcript

 

Stanley Truhlsen: I mentioned Dr. Latta, and he gave us our initial lectures in anatomy, embryology and so forth. And in the end of eight weeks, you got an examination. And then you lined up outside of his office after the exam and corrected it and so forth to find out how you did. We had, as I said, I think upwards of 90 or 100 students in that class, but when we got through with that, when you went in to see Dr. Latta, he'd either smile at you or frown. If he smiled at you, you stayed at the class. If not, you were all through. You are not going to get to go to medical school. You could not pass the test. So it was kind of a memorable occasion to take that first eight weeks test and go get your report and find out if you're going to continue. If he smiled at you was kind of nice. 

 

Carrie Meyer: So when you walked in his office to find out your first test results, what were you thinking?  

 

ST: Thank God I made it. 

 

CM: Did he ever—did he say anything to you guys when you would walk in or was it really just that quick?  

 

ST: He'd look up and call you by name and look at his book and okay. That was it. But the whole class one by one went in and found out what their future was.  

 

CM: And those of you standing in the hallway as these other people are coming back out—  

 

ST: You either were going to continue in medical school or you flunked out after eight weeks.  

 

CM: But when you were seeing people come out of his office, what was the look on their face—what was the like you know if they if they made it?  

 

ST: I don't remember paying much attention to anybody else. I just knew I made it. 

 

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Edward Holyoke, MD, PhD, 1980

Transcript


Edward Holyoke: We started off in Embryology. That was the first—our first morning of the first day. With Dr. Latta introducing you to your medical education. And he used to introduce you in a very very effective sort of way. He’d… the student body—the brand new freshman class was invariably all assembled, because he didn’t come into the last moment. Then he came in through the back door with that quiet way of his. He started down the steps. And he goes… It was silent when he came in and the silence deepened, and the silence deepened, and the silence deepened, until it was totally profound. By the time he got down in front of the lecture table and then he turned around. “Gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce you to your work in medicine. Embryology is a very excellent elimination course. It has many intricacies.”

 

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Dean Charles William McCorkle Poynter, MD, at his desk, c. 1931

From the McGoogan Health Sciences Library, Special Collections and Archives

Charles William McCorkle Poynter, MD

Born in Elgin, Illinois, Charles William McCorkle Poynter, MD, came to Nebraska as a child. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) in 1898 and received his medical degree from Omaha Medical College in 1902. After graduation, Dr. Poynter interned at Bellevue Clinic in New York City and at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. He first started teaching anatomy in 1906 at UNL when medical students were conducting their first two years of school in Lincoln. When the medical program moved full-time to Omaha in 1914, Dr. Poynter joined the faculty as the chair of the Department of Anatomy. In 1929, he was made acting dean of the college and in 1930, he was made dean. For 17 years, from 1929 to 1946, Dr. Poynter almost unilaterally chose students for admission and selected where those students would take their internships. He was known as autocratic but fair, and his tenacity guided the College of Medicine through the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl drought, and World War II.

Doctor Bag used by Charles William McCorkle Poynter, MD

Donated by M. Doering, from the McGoogan Health Sciences Library Special Collections and Archives

Honorary Degree Hood belonging to Charles William McCorkle Poynter, MD

Donated by M. Doering, from the McGoogan Health Sciences Library Special Collections and Archives

Edward Holyoke, MD, PhD, 1979

Transcript


Edward Holyoke: Poynter was quite an amazing personality and probably a good deal more so and a good deal more influential on all the students that went by during his years as professor of anatomy. That’s where these old timers remember him and think of him all the time. I was in the last class that had him as full-time professor of anatomy.

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John S. Latta, MD, 1979

Transcript


John Latta: Dr. Poynter was one of the most interesting men I ever knew. He was very open and frank about everything. His father had been a populist governor of Nebraska and he learned a lot of techniques from him. [laughter] I think which put him in good stead. He was very well known in anatomical circles and he was an excellent teacher of anatomy. He had been a surgeon and adjunct professor of anatomy when he was a surgeon in Lincoln. He thought that he had acquired tuberculosis and he was advised to quit his practice and that's when he became professor of anatomy. So, he had the background of knowing what some of the medical problems surgeons had and he knew how to instill that information into students. He was a very excellent professor of anatomy and a very great student of history of anatomy.

 

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Edward A. Holyoke, MD, PhD, in his office, c. 1950

From the McGoogan Health Sciences Library Special Collections and Archives

 

Edward A. Holyoke, MD, PhD

Born in Madrid, Nebraska, in 1908, Edward A. Holyoke, MD, PhD, came to Omaha and enrolled as a student at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine in 1928. He began teaching anatomy while he was still in medical school, graduating in 1934. For decades, he was one of two anatomy professors in the department. Famous for his speaking voice, sense of humor, and his unflagging dedication to his students, Dr. Holyoke remains a UNMC legend in the College of Medicine.

 

Read more about Dr. Holyoke's time at UNMC in his memoir, "Golden Anniversary".

 

During his tenure, Dr. Holyoke worked closely with Rose Reynolds, UNMC’s anatomical illustrator. She is credited with creating many of the illustrations that accompany Dr. Holyoke’s manuscripts and conference papers. Dr. Holyoke also utilized her illustrations in the classroom, giving his students additional avenues for studying anatomy outside of the lab.

 

You can learn more about Dr. Holyoke’s work and that of Rose Reynolds via his collection in the McGoogan Health Sciences Library Special Collections and Archives.

 

You can also learn more about Rose Reynolds in the Medical Teaching Tools exhibit.

 

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William “Bill” Karrer, MD, 2019

Transcript


Bill Karrer: Dr. Holyoke was a very intense guy about anatomy. And we— we dissected our— our body specimen [53:30] to look at all the different muscles and so on. He was very stimulating.

 

Heather Brown: I hear he had a pronounced a way of talking. Very—

 

BK: Well, yeah. Yes. Yes. And when you got to be a [54:00] chief resident in surgery, you spent a semester part time in the anatomy department working with him. And he'd always have a way of asking a question and most of the time I had an answer. Sometimes it wasn't the right answer. He'd say, "Karrer, how'd you get this far in life?" [CHUCKLES] [54:30] He was just a— he was just a— he worked hard, if you weren't doing well, he gave you extra time. And tried to get you through all this.

 

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Rowan Zetterman, MD, MACP, MACG, and Robert S. Wigton, MD, MS, 2017

Transcript


Rowan Zetterman: So... so, the Gross Anatomy lab, there were generally five or six students around the cadaver during dissection. And we had partitions that were not floor-to-ceiling. There was a gap above and a gap below, and an area you could walk in. And so, you know, you didn't necessarily see the people in the next cube or anything like that. And Dr. Holyoke had a peculiar voice pattern that very few of us could mimic, and I certainly am not one of them. But there was an apocryphal story in one of the classes behind us that apparently there was a student demonstrating something with... with... you know, with a pointer or something and using Dr. Holyoke's voice to do the demonstration. And Dr. Holyoke walked up behind him and stood there and listened. And, of course, everybody else was just mortified in there— because they could see Dr. Holyoke was there, except for the kid that was talking. And he apparently finally got all done. And Dr. Holyoke said to him, “I don't know if you sound like that or not, but you better sound like that to the end of this class.” So, he had a sense of humor in his own way.

 

Robert Wigton: Oh, it was a very sly sense of humor. And he pretended to be tougher and meaner than he was, really.

 

RZ: Yeah, true.

 

RW: And he got a lot of fun out of doing that. But the students, of course, didn't know whether he was kidding or not.

 

RZ: Oh, that's right.

 

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