We welcome back our first graduates: A look at how times have changed for UF med students

The new medical school dean was unpacking when Mark Barrow walked into the Grove Hall office to ask for an application.

There were no applications yet. No office staff either. The only person in the new UF College of Medicine’s temporary office was the dean, George T. Harrell, M.D., who talked with the UF junior for two hours.

“He looked at my transcript for a few minutes and said, ‘Great, you’re in,’” said Barrow, the first student accepted into the College of Medicine’s inaugural graduating class of 1960. “I had good grades but I thought getting into medical school was supposed to be difficult. He said, ‘Hell, son, I was worried we wouldn’t have anybody.’”

For Jessica Greer, getting into UF’s medical school wasn’t quite so simple. There were the prerequisites, the volunteer hours, the summers spent working in labs, the elaborate application, the Medical College Admissions Test and those nerve-racking interviews.

But with five decades stretching between Greer’s acceptance into medical school and Barrow’s chat in Grove Hall with Harrell, how each got in could be the least of the ways the College of Medicine has changed since the first class graduated in 1960.


When Barrow and his classmates started medical school, the medical sciences building wasn’t finished and the hospital had yet to be built. There were no laptops, no Internet and many of the medical technologies students learn today, like magnetic resonance imaging, were not in use yet.

The class of 1960's first day at the College of Medicine. Photo provided by the HSC George T. Harrell Archives

Barrow spent hours researching journal articles in the library when he had to present a patient to one of the faculty members during his clinical rotations. Most of his notes were written in a black book he kept in the pocket of his white coat

Today, when most third- and fourth-year medical students need quick answers about conditions or medications, they reach for their iPhone, Android or Blackberry and open up an app called Epocrates.

“That is something we use when we are trying to make decisions quickly,” said Bethany Milliron, a fourth-year medical student.

With smartphones and computers around every corner, Milliron can research information on certain conditions whenever she needs it, access journals online through the library and, most importantly, pull up patients’ charts and lab results.

Computers have impacted almost everything medical students do now. The information age has even affected a staple of medical education — gross anatomy. Students go over an online version of the dissection before they enter lab.

“It helps but I don’t think anything can replace the experience of cutting a body open and doing it yourself,” said David Hall, a second-year medical student.

And instead of peering into a microscope, students look at histological samples on high-definition monitors, in class and in small groups so they can discuss what they are seeing, said Jessica Greer, a first-year medical student.

And chalkboards are so 1950s. Most lectures today are delivered through PowerPoint presentations, Hall said. Even office hours for professors are different. Few students actually trek to a professor’s office to ask questions anymore. They e-mail.

“I can’t imagine having to go to a library to find an answer for a question I have. You just Google it,” Hall said. “We are spoiled in some ways with technology, but we have 10 times the information to be responsible for. You can’t use Google on a test.”

Study time

A medical student' study cubile, the brainchild of George T. Harrell. Photo provided by the HSC George T. Harrell Archives

But students in the 1950s and 1960s had something many of today’s medical students probably didn’t even know existed: cubicles.

The brainchild of Harrell, the cubicles gave medical students their own miniature office where they could read, study and even use microscopes.

“Most of us spent our study hours, evenings and weekends in those cubicles,” said Jean Bennett, M.D., an alumna of the 1960 class. “I think it was a marvelous concept because it simulated a physician’s office. We were able to establish good work habits there.”

By the late 1960s, the cubicles were phased out to make room for office space in the growing college. To Barrow it was a “tragic mistake (that) broke Dr. Harrell’s heart.”

Most medical students still study on campus during their first two years, usually in the library or Blue Room, says Greer, but they often prefer to work in groups rather than alone.

Although students still spend their first two years hitting the books and the second two years of medical school working in the hospital, the curriculum has changed through the years. Greer and her classmates will learn more about radiology and robotic surgery and Jim Free, M.D., an alumnus of the first class and a co-inventor of Gatorade, remembers having more time in the lab when he was a student.

“We would spend a lot of time doing lab projects and learning from lab work,” he said. “They learn more from virtual methods than hands-on laboratory methods.”

Many medical students still spend a lot of time in the lab, but they usually do so during the summer. Greer started working in diabetes researcher Mark Atkinson’s lab when she was 15, and that is how she spent the summer between her first and second years of medical school, as well.

With Shands now a large health-care system, students also see far more patients and different types of conditions than they did years ago. Milliron has observed interventional radiology procedures, where radiologists tackle surgical problems using image-guided, minimally invasive techniques, and she has seen a surgeon operate using the DaVinci robot. Interventional radiology did not exist in 1958 when the teaching hospital opened, nor did the DaVinci. And the hospital wasn’t quite so busy then, either.

“We had like three patients a week and we were scrounging to get those sometimes,” Free remembered. “But I feel like we learned more from those few patients than we could have learned from a thousand patients.”

Barrow said he does worry that students today aren’t learning as much at the bedside as he and his classmates did.

“Technology is good, but it shouldn’t interfere with bedside diagnosis and bedside manner,” he said.

Members of the college's first class during skit night. Photo provided by the HSC George T. Harrell Archives

Social hour

Studying. That pretty much sums up how the first medical school students spent their evenings and weekends. With no upperclassmen to advise them, Bennett said they spent most of their time in their cubicles or studying together during the first year.

Eventually, some students went to a football game or two or on a date. But there wasn’t much to do in Gainesville then.

“The county was dry so if you had a party you had to make a run to Ruby’s in Putnam County or Henry’s in Marion County,” Barrow said. “We made something with grape juice and vodka. We called it ‘Purple Passion.’”

Free mostly remembers that they were a tight-knit with each other and with faculty members.

“We all knew the dean,” Free said. “We all knew everybody. It was like a small family.”

“There was an attitude of all for one and one for all,” Bennett remembered.

Some things never change. That attitude of teamwork and friendship is something college faculty members still instill in students, Greer said.

And students still spend most of their time studying. But when they do need to unwind, there are more options. Medical students work out and play basketball and volleyball together at the Southwest Recreation Center, watch movies and eat dinner together too. The college actually implemented a new program called Staying Whole in Medicine to help students find a balance between studying and enjoying life.

“You get paired with people you normally wouldn’t hang out with, and you get to talk about different problems you are having,” Greer said. “And you get to see different sides of people.

“We have all bonded as a class. There are 30 or 40 of us who, after every exam, hang out … we go to the pool. We just have fun. It makes us feel human again.”


College of Medicine alumna Christy Cavanagh delivered her first baby in Haiti. She was there on a medical outreach trip during spring break with her classmates when it happened. It’s a trip she never would have been able to take 50 years ago.

“It was her 10th baby,” said Cavanagh. “It was the first time she ever went to a doctor for help delivering the baby.”

A UF COM medical student sees a child at a clinic set up in the Dominican Republic as part of DR. Salud, an international health trip organized by students and faculty.

Many medical students today take parts in outreach trips like these, including Milliron, who went on the medical outreach trip Project Yucatan three years in a row. For younger students, it allows them to spend time working with patients, something they don’t often get to do early in medical school. For older students, the trip gives them a chance to develop their teaching skills working with newer medical students.

“It’s a renewing experience because you get to work with patients, and (spring break) is a good time of year to go because you’re usually down in the doldrums with schoolwork.”

Another opportunity today’s students have is the option to go to medical school at all. The student body of UF’s first medical school class was quite diverse for its time. There were three women and Asian and Latino students in the class, and everybody was treated equally, said Bennett, the first female UF medical school graduate.

But five decades later, more students than ever have the opportunity to become physicians. Some classes have more female students than male and there are more students from foreign backgrounds in the mix.

Members of the college's class of 2009 following their commencement ceremony.

“I don’t feel restricted because I am a female,” said Greer, president of the UF chapter of the American Medical Women Association. “Fifty years ago, women were the minority in medicine. I don’t think of diversity now as being about race and gender. To me, diversity is my classmates having different stories, coming from backgrounds and being raised differently.”

And with student loans and more scholarship opportunities in Florida, like Florida Bright Futures, for undergraduate students, going to medical school is no longer something only students from financially secure families can do.

The technology may be different. The classes may have changed. But the end result is still the same: More Gators practicing medicine.