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This oral history is one in a series of interviews conducted by the Columbia University Oral History Research Office in the late 1980s to early 1990s documenting the history of ASH and the development of the profession of hematology in the United States. Columbia University holds the copyright to this oral history, and anyone interested in quoting this transcript must first contact the University for permission.
ASH provides the following oral history for historical purposes. The opinions expressed by the interviewees are not necessarily those of ASH, nor does ASH endorse or make claim as to the accuracy of any of the information included here. This oral history also is not intended as medical advice; you should always seek advice from a qualified health provider for your individual medical needs.
The following oral history memoir is the result of one tape-recorded interview with Dr. C. Lockard Conley, conducted by Eric Hoffman on October 28, 1987, at the Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Conley has reviewed the transcript and made corrections and emendations. The reader is asked to bear in mind that the following oral history is a verbatim transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.
October 28, 1987
Q: Dr. Conley, I was wondering if you could provide some background, biographical information. I have you as being born in Baltimore in 1915. I was wondering if you could, perhaps, provide some information about your early schooling, early awakenings toward science or medicine as a career.
Conley: I attended the public schools including high school in Baltimore; became quite interested in science in the last year or two of high school particularly in biology where I had an excellent teacher. I grew up in the years of the Great Depression. I attended college at Johns Hopkins and majored in biology, not knowing at that point what I was going to do with it. And in fact, it was not until the third year of college that I decided that I wanted to be a pre-medical student. I hadn't made that decision until that point. I graduated from Hopkins in 1935 as a pre-medical student.
Q: There's quite a bit of interest in the early developments of biology at Johns Hopkins, going back to the turn of the century. I was wondering if you could supply some information about what sort of courses were offered, which professors you studied with, during the 1930s.
Conley: My introduction to biology was by a young instructor named Charles Brambel. He was an interesting man who in effect teased a lot of the students. For example, I remember in our very first session, he had us draw the yeast cells that we saw under the microscope. A yeast cell under the microscope simply looks like a disc and there is no way you can draw it, except to draw a circle or perhaps to fill it in. He would go around and shake his head as if we hadn't drawn it correctly. So that was sort of an amusing introduction to biology in my first year. But I got quite seriously interested in biology and studied the biology of that era, which was largely organismic, and included embryology, comparative anatomy and histology. Histology was given as an elective course taught by Dr. Emmart, a woman who had been working with Dr. Warren Lewis, one of the pioneers in the development of tissue culture. So I had a little introduction to at least medical histology as a college student but a very minimal one. I learned something about the techniques of making sections and looking at them. The eminent professors, H.S. Jennings, E.A. Andrews, S.O. Mast and C.W. Metz, did not teach any of my undergraduate courses.
Q: There is much being made about the fact in history of biology right now, that there was a transition that took place between earlier morphological studies and later experimental studies.
Conley: Yes, this was very much organismic biology, with very little physiology or function. We were looking at specimens, dissecting animals, that sort of thing. I studied chemistry. My chemistry professor was Neal Gordon, whose name is famous because he established what are now called the Gordon Conferences. Neal Gordon had these conferences originally at Gibson Island, here. They were then called the Gibson Island Conferences but subsequently, they've become known to all medical scientists as the Gordon Conferences held in New England. Neal Gordon was my professor of inorganic chemistry and I later studied organic chemistry. Alsoph Corwin was attempting to synthesize hemoglobin. He is still one of my friends. I got very little physical chemistry. My education in science, by current standards, was very deficient. It was all pretty standard, fairly elementary kind of material. Joseph Sweetman Ames, then President of the Johns Hopkins University, gave us a few lectures on elementary physics.
Q: Were there courses offered at the time in bio-chemistry?
Conley: I'm quite sure bio-chemistry was not taught in the undergraduate school. There has been a great change in what young people learn now. Just as many high school students learn calculus, much of the pre-clinical teaching that was provided for medical students, they've already had now before they get to medical school.
Q: This was in the medical school or undergraduate?
Conley: I was an undergraduate.
Q: Undergraduate, okay. Were there any other courses that stood out? Did you have courses in genetics at that time?
Conley: Yes, I had a course in genetics by Alexander Weinstein, who was an impressive teacher. I learned a good deal from him about Mendelian genetics, as known at that time.
Q: Was there-- you said that it was in your third year that you became interested in the study of medicine?
Conley: Medicine, yes.
Q: Was there a particular event or particular study--
Conley: I think it as probably a practical decision. What else could I do with that kind of background, particularly at that particular time, when there wasn't very much future in anything. There didn't seem to be.
Q: And you decided on going to Columbia, to Physicians and Surgeons?
Conley: No, I didn't go to Columbia. I was very impecunious, and I applied to only one medical school: the University of Maryland. I went to the University of Maryland for my first year of medical school. There, as a medical student, I met Magnus I. Gregersen, the Professor of Physiology, who had newly arrived from Harvard and who was a student and a protégé of Walter Cannon. Dr. Gregersen invited me to drop out of medical school for a year, and to spend a year in physiology. This was long before research grants; I was called a teaching fellow. Although I did participate in some research, I did not accomplish anything very meritorious at that time.
But that experience changed my own thinking from my, up until that time, anatomical approach, to thinking physiologically and subsequently, pathophysiologically. I think it was that experience that made me ask why? What's going on? Rather than what is it? There is no question that it had a great influence on my life.
Then I went to Columbia where Magnus Gregersen became the Professor of Physiology. He invited me to go there as a medical student, and I was able to get a scholarship. So I went through Columbia with a scholarship and kept my fingers in the Physiology Department.
Q: Magnus Gregersen worked in the Department of Physiology in the Medical School itself?
Conley: He was the Professor of Physiology, he was our professor.
Q: What particular area did he work in?
Conley: He was interested in measurement of blood volume.
Q: That's the research project that you, yourself--
Conley: That's what I was involved in and I learned the techniques. But more important than that, I became very interested in mechanisms, and in physiology as it is applied to medicine. I went to Columbia, at what I consider to be the peak of its excellence. There were just extraordinary people there. The surgeon was Allen O. Whipple, who was himself a physiologist; he thought in terms of mechanisms, had a very unusual and interesting approach to medicine, and was a superb teacher. There was an excellent Pathology Department. And here again, we were not just looking at dead material, but trying to understand what had happened to it. But the Department of Medicine was really spectacular. My teachers included Robert F. Loeb, Dana Atchley, Franklin Hanger, Randolph West, William Thompson and many others. These people were real medical scholars.
Q: This was a period when biochemistry itself was finding a niche within the medical school?
Conley: When science was very much being applied to medicine. And the people whose names I mentioned, were very much scientists. Robert Loeb was an incredible figure in terms of his approach to medicine. He was a superb clinician, had a photographic memory, and his approach to clinical problems was very much physiological.
Q: Can you give some examples of the work that Loeb did?
Conley: Dr. Loeb was the one who discovered the nature of the electrolyte disturbance in Addison's disease. He was an authority on serum electrolytes. And his colleague Dana Atchley was similarly involved. During my last year in medical school, I was invited to meet after breakfast with Dr. Loeb and Dr. Atchley. Atchley was primarily a clinician, but a very scholarly one, and Loeb was a full-time professor. They would meet in Dr. Loeb's office every morning between eight and nine and discuss the issues of the day. It was a very exciting experience to sit with these giants--and they were giants in medicine-- to hear them and to participate in discussions of pathophysiology in medicine.
Q: What would be the nature of the discussions? Was it on recent experiments?
Conley: Yes, they discussed the work that was going on, that they were involved in. But anything that had come along-- this was not a scheduled meeting, it was an after breakfast get-together before the work of the day started when they might discuss the news events of the day. But usually the conversation related to something that was evolving in medicine. Something that was going on.
Q: Were there connections between Columbia Presbyterian and the other medical research institutes of the city such as Rockefeller, such as--
Conley: They were not intimately connected. Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center is out at 168th Street, really quite far removed from these other centers. There was an affiliation with the old Bellevue Hospital. There was a Columbia service at Bellevue where we had some of our clinical instruction. There, for example, I met Andre Cournand, who much later won the Nobel Prize for his work on cardiac catheterization.
Q: Was there any interest awakened in you in hematology while you were at Columbia?
Conley: Not at all. In that day, all of the routine blood counts, urinalyses, gastric analyses were performed by medical students, so I did many, many blood counts along with all of the other medical students. But I can't say that I had any intention of doing that beyond medical school.[laughs]
Q: It might have been after you graduated, but I believe that at Columbia P&S they started to do work in terms of developing plasma collection and plasma analysis for a blood bank program that they were developing.
Conley: The blood bank evolved while I was there. Blood banking, blood transfusion was extremely primitive when I was a medical student and intern. We had a large square plate, a sheet of plate glass, on which with a red crayon we drew nine squares and we would type and cross match blood using blood of known type that had been stored in the laboratory. The blood typing and cross matching were done by the interns. There was no blood bank. John Scudder was the man who established the blood bank.
Q: Did you have any context with him?
Conley: I surely did, as an intern. All of us interns drew blood from the blood donors when they came in to be bled. And of course, we then obtained blood from Dr. Scudder's bank. He had some interesting ideas that we were exposed to. He was a very dynamic man
Q: Did you come into contact with his associate?
Conley: Dr. [Charles] Drew? Yes I knew Dr. Drew.
Q: Could you supply some information on--
Conley: No, not very much. Dr. Drew was very much on the scene working with Dr. Scudder in developing the blood bank. They developed their own blood bank storage bottle, which was sort of a figure-eight shape bottle with a narrow section between the top and the bottom to keep the potassium that was released from the blood cells out of the plasma. That didn't last very long. This was an age of pioneering and there is no question that they were pioneers.
Q: Through the offices of people such as Walter B. Cannon, and Alex Carrel from Rockefeller Institute, it was suggested that Columbia University develop a pilot program for blood banking, to be used in defense of Britain. I think that was the name of the program actually--Blood for Britain. Do you know anything --
Conley: I don't know anything about that at all. I do remember that Dr. Richard Bing was working in the Pathology Department before I left, and Charles A. Lindbergh by that time was working with Dr. Carrel, at a time when they were being looked upon with some disfavor. And Lindbergh would come out to the medical school in the evening, when he was not likely to be seen, to work with Dr. Bing in developing a perfusion apparatus-- to perfuse excised organs and that sort of thing. That had nothing to do with the war effort. I was not in any way associated with Dr. Carrel, and my only recollection of him, except from knowing about him in his tissue culture work and so forth, was his work with Dr. Bing and Charles A. Lindbergh.
Q: Do you know what happened to the blood banking program at Columbia? It seems to be a lost chapter in lots of the accounts of--
Conley: I don't know about the blood bank per se, but there have been people at Columbia who have been very, very important in studies of the red cell, red cell immunology, and other fields applied to blood banking. But I had no contact with those people. Incidentally, I left Columbia before I finished my training in May of 1942, to enter the military service.
Q: Perhaps if we talk about your military service-- was there, did you continue with your medical training work in the military?
Conley: I volunteered for the military service after Pearl Harbor. I remember I had to send three letters of recommendation to get into the military service. It took from December until May until I was called up, reflecting the disorganization of that period, when the military forces were being expanded rapidly. But in May, I had applied to the Air Forces, and was accepted into the Air Forces as a Lieutenant in the Medical Corps, and was assigned to what was called Hunter Field in Savannah.
I was there for about a month when the Air Forces opened a new base at Greenville, South Carolina. The man who was selected to be the Surgeon--the Surgeon is the term for the medical officer in charge--took me and two other of his then colleagues along to establish the medical unit of this new base in Greenville. And although I was very young and very inexperienced, I guess I was more experienced than some of the others. So I became the Chief of the Medical Service in the station hospital. We had really quite a good little medical service there, and some very good doctors.
But in 1943, the Air Surgeon General's office, apparently detected my previous experience in physiology. I was transferred to what was called the Altitude Training Program, at Randolph Field, Texas. I was at Randolph Field to take a course in what was then considered to be High Altitude Physiology.
Q: Could you give some more information on the altitude training program?
Conley: Yes. It consisted primarily of teaching air crew members the risks of high altitude flight and what precautions were required to protect them against these dangers. In World War II, there were virtually no pressurized air craft. I think there may have been some photo-reconnaissance planes that went up high, but the bombing flights over Europe, the B-17 flights were under 25,000 feet, which at that time was considered to be high altitude. As a matter of fact, at any flight above 10,000 feet, it was required that oxygen be used.
In those days, you had to use oxygen masks and there were two types that were sequentially developed. We had to teach the air crew members the importance of using these masks, how to use them, and to expose them to simulated flights in low pressure chambers, demonstrating along the way by having certain of the participants not use oxygen and letting everyone else see them pass out. We would tell them, now be sure to turn on your oxygen before you pass out, but they never did. So it was a very convincing demonstration. We were dealing with young, very cocky people. You know, the kind of people who say, "Maybe you need oxygen but I don't." And the fact is, you don't sense the need for oxygen, so we had to give these dramatic demonstrations, hoping to convince them that they really should use oxygen at these altitudes. We unnecessarily took them to much higher altitudes, to 35,000 feet where they might experience bends, which is the agonizing joint pain that occurs when bubbles of nitrogen are extruded.
Conley: I was only involved in the program for a year or so. I was sent to Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama to participate in the activities of the altitude training unit. But then I was transferred to the medical service of what was an excellent hospital, where I sat out the war, involved in internal medicine. I had really quite a good clinical experience at the Maxwell Field Hospital until I left the military service at the end of 1945.
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