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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 two tape-recorded interview with Dr. Joseph Ross, conducted by Eric Hoffman on June 11-12, 1986 at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Ross has reviewed the transcript and made corrections and emendations. The reader should bear in mind that following oral history is a verbatim transcript of spoken, rather than written prose.
June 11, 1986
Q: Dr. Ross, I wonder if you could say something about your childhood in California. You were born in 1910. I wondered if you could especially point to the various influences that would have led you into a career of medicine and science.
Ross: Gladly. I was born in Azusa which was a small community with nothing but jack rabbits, rattlesnakes and sage brush. My father and mother had come from Illinois and my father was a science teacher at the local high school. He was very much interested in natural history and things that were living. He was very kind and took me on camping trips from my earliest recollection. We went to the desert, the mountains, and saw lizards and snakes, jack rabbits and road runners, etc. This initiated my interest in things of science.
Then, as I progressed in age, I was encouraged to participate in science fairs. I remember I had one exhibit, at a relatively early age, of the maturation of frogs. I got the eggs out of a pond and had exhibits of the eggs as they matured and the tadpoles and the development of a tadpole into an adult frog. I was gratified because it won the first prize, which was a blue ribbon. That was a great stimulus to my interest in science.
When I reached high school, there was a very excellent biology teacher named Kate Blocet, who was married to a gentleman who ultimately became a very distinguished professor of chemistry at UCLA. She was very stimulating and encouraged me to go into medicine as did my father.
My father was a quite gifted teacher and he got the local physician to sponsor an essay contest on scientific subjects. I wrote an essay about citrus by-products which was awarded that prize. It was then entered into the national Garvin chemical essay contest, which was a competition for college scholarships. It won the gold medal in California, but unfortunately only reached second place at the national level, so I didn't get the scholarship. And this was repeated in my senior year at high school: again the gold medal in California, but it placed but didn't win the national contest.
At an early age, I had scrofula and tuberculosis, which was acquired as a consequence of drinking unpasteurized Jersey milk from the local dairy. I had a neck dissection for removal of the scrofulous nodes from my cervical area and then spent some ten months in bed. Prior to that I had been a scrawny kid but my parents fed me up and ever since then I've been fat. But during that period of ten months in bed, again my parents were very kind in setting up plants and other things which interested me. Also, I was brought forcibly into contact with physicians at that point in my life.
The doctor who operated on my neck and who took care of me during that time was a colorful character. He had the biggest house, and the biggest automobile in the community and he drove faster than anybody else and considered traffic tickets as part of his professional expense. He'd pay the fine and go off at the same rate and the cops usually let him go. But he also stimulated my interest because he was a very kind gentleman and he appreciated the fact that I had interest in living things and started telling me about aspects of medicine. After I was able to get up and about, he used to invite me to go on patient visits with him and that also was very stimulating.
So I would say that when I was a freshman or a junior in high school, I decided I wanted to be a physician. And it's of most interest that most physicians have decided they wish to be physicians at the age of fourteen or fifteen, which is in marked contrast to some of the other professions where they sort of drift into it because they can't find much else to do, I guess. Incidentally, have three sons-in-law who are lawyers. I discussed this with them and all of them decided to be lawyers after they completed their college educations. Anyhow, I decided I wanted to be a doctor when I was fifteen years old.
When I finished high school--I had made a good academic record. My father was a high school teacher who by that time had become a principal in the school. I think his salary was twenty-six hundred dollars a year or something like that. I had a sister who had had a very severe mastoiditis, which depleted the family coffers which never were very great. So, in order to go to college, I needed scholarship support. I was awarded the Cranston scholarship, a very good scholarship at Stanford University.
Q: Can I ask some questions about the high school education before we go on?
Q: Okay. Do you recollect any of what the curriculum was like? Were there actual courses in chemistry and biology?
Ross: Oh, certainly. My father taught the courses in chemistry and in physics, which were fascinating courses. He was an excellent teacher. He stimulated interest even in the dumbest kids, and in those that were blasé. He was able to do this with certain tricks of the trade which was very interesting. For example, he told about urinalysis, I remember, in a chemistry course. And he told about the development of urinalysis and he said it used to be that people would taste the urine to see if it was sweet, to see if it was sugared. So he dipped his finger in a urine sample and, of course, put another in his mouth, but the kids were profoundly impressed that he was dipping his finger into a pot of pee and then putting it in his mouth, and he said, "This person hasn't got any sugar in his urine." That's the kind of thing he did, and it stimulated their interest greatly.
He also took people on trips to industry. I remember going to a soap making factory which smelled awful, but it demonstrated the chemical processes involved from taking offal and tallow and making them into soap.
That was very stimulating not only to me but also to the other people that he taught. No less than three of his students became distinguished professors of chemistry, and two distinguished professors of physics in very prestigious universities. One was at Stanford, another was at Pomona College.
Q: Do you remember their names?
Ross: The names of the professor at Stanford was Philip Leighton and his brother Wesley Leighton was a professor of chemistry at Pomona College. There were a quite a number of his students who went into the field of medicine, all the way from internal medicine to surgery. He had a very formative influence on these people. Also, he was able to promote a competition in this field which, as I said, was subsidized by the local physician. The winners of these contests received a gold medal, which was very nice. It was awarded publicly in an assembly in a high school. It was esteemed and that brought peer interest and peer esteem, which is very valuable in trying to formatively influence young people in what field they're going to enter. This was a very strong influence and also the lady, Mrs. Blocet, was very helpful in stimulating interest in children in the biological sciences. I'm undyingly grateful to these people for their enthusiasm, inspiration and guidance!!
Q: Do you remember anything of the content of the biology courses themselves?
Ross: Yes, I remember we had to draw pictures of twigs and leaves and animals. I was unable to draw even a crooked line, let alone a straight line. I had a terrible time making the pictures, but interestingly I've kept them. They're not all that bad. Also, the lady set up experiments. She repeated some of the things about the maturation of amphibians. She had demonstrations about fish. And, as I recollect it, we even did a dissection, I believe, of a frog, which was quite interesting and again stimulated the children. It presumably repulsed many of the girls in the class, but I think this was a show put on to influence the boys about how effete they (the girls were) and how turned off by things biological. I would say that this culture in which I grew up encouraged boys far more than women to go into scientific careers. I suppose that again was a reflection of the upbringing of these children in their homes. Women weren't supposed to go into professional activities such as medicine. They were supposed to do other things, which were equally important but they were not stimulated to go into scientific endeavor.
Q: Was there ever any mention made of the fairly new advances in genetics?
Ross: Genetics, at that time--you must remember I graduated from high school in 1929 and genetics really hadn't become generally recognized as being very important at that time. Subsequently, when I was in college, I took a course in genetics. I was considered to be sort of a kook for taking such a course, but it also was very stimulating. It was taught by a wonderful old man named Danforth. He was a very gentle, kind fellow. Unfortunately, the course came at one o'clock in the afternoon after lunch. You may know it's warm at Stanford after lunch and most of the class became somnolent, but it was quite effective at stimulating interest in the area of genetics. But in high school and grammar school, I don't think many people knew about genetics--some of them didn't even know the meaning of the word.
O: So the main emphasis in the high school would be towards areas of either natural history or descriptive kinds of science?
Ross: Yes, except for the industrial chemistry in which my father encouraged interest by taking people on those expeditions, not only to a soap factory, to a steel foundry and to a dry lake bed north of Los Angeles where they were extracting brine out of the dry lake and fractionating this into certain chemical compounds. That was also very interesting. But I would say that the major emphasis to which I was exposed primarily was biological science rather than physical science, although there was a very good education in chemistry, which I guess you would call a non-biological science, but it has great bearing upon biological science. So I was blessed by having a family that was interested in encouraging such interest, an academic environment which encouraged such interest, not only in myself but to other children in the school. I think it was a great education!! I think much of that's gone aside now. People teaching school now, most of them aren't going to put forth the extra effort to develop little kids with interest in nature, take them on trips and encourage them to read papers and write papers after school.
Q: You entered Stanford University in 1929?
Ross: I graduated from high school in 1929. I was awarded the Cranston scholarship at Stanford. This was established by the parents of Senator Alan Cranston in memory of his brother who had been killed in World War I. This made it possible for me to attend Stanford. Interestingly, the tuition at Stanford when I was there was three hundred dollars a year. This completely subsidized all of the tuition costs and I was fortunate enough to have a little money and be able to pay for my room the first year, which also didn't cost much. I waited tables in the dormitory dining room--the food was unbelievably awful--but it sustained me.
The scholarship was extremely helpful, and interestingly I kept in touch with Mrs. Cranston until she died at the age of ninety. Every year I would write to her and she would respond. That also was a very, very helpful. I have not maintained, unfortunately, the contacts with the Senator. I should try maybe to stimulate those interests because I think it would be interesting to contact the people who held that scholarship and ask them if they would contribute some money to increase the support from the scholarship because from a tuition of three hundred dollars a year in 1929, to fifteen thousand today--subsidized scholarships, fall far behind in providing adequate support. Because Stanford, as well as Harvard, although the donor money is there its accrued value does not keep up with inflation.
Q: Yes. Okay. At Stanford, did you major in biology?
Ross: I was what was called a pre-medical biological sciences major. The whole drive that I had when I was there was to get into medical school, so there was very strong emphasis on scientific courses and a minimal emphasis on humanities, which I regret very much. I did take medieval history. I took some other such courses, but they were very few, which was probably a mistake.
When I was at Stanford, I played football and I had a rude awakening in the autumn quarter when I had a course in analytic geometry which I just couldn't understand. I didn't know what the hell was going on! I used to go on football trips on the weekend and have an examination on Monday and I flunked a couple of them and I was summoned by the dean who said, "Look, you came up here with a very good record. You've got a scholarship. If you don't shape up and do better, you're going to lose your scholarship." Well, that put the fear of God in me and I worked like hell and passed the course, but I didn't take any more mathematics. That was enough of a warning, so I didn't want to sacrifice what else I might do to try to learn mathematics. That again was a terrible mistake. I should have had more mathematics.
But again at Stanford I had an excellent education. I had superb teachers in chemistry, physics and biology and that was a very great blessing.
At Stanford, although my scholarship paid my tuition, I had to work most of the time to support the other costs. After the first year, I joined a fraternity and had the great privilege of earning my room by making all the damn beds. I had to make about thirty-five beds every day and change all the sheets on the weekend. That was a terrible, terrible job, particularly because the beds were double deckers and I had to get up on the damn bed to make the top bed and lean over and it usually gave me a stomach ache from all the pressure on my belly. Also, I waited tables for my food. The work didn't hurt me. It was probably good for me, and taught me how to work to get along.
I studied very hard at Stanford and made a very good academic record. I had anticipated going to Stanford medical school, and had enrolled and paid the initial fee, but a friend of mine got the idea of why don't we go to Harvard? So I applied to Harvard and was accepted at Harvard and the dean of students at Stanford was a very wise and understanding gentleman and he refunded the deposit I had made on the Stanford medical school tuition, an act of great kindness.
My time at Stanford really was very fine. I worked very hard, played football and had many friends. I didn't have a car or anything like that, but that was probably a good thing too.
At the end of my third year at Stanford when I was going to go to Harvard, I needed just one more quarter of credit at Stanford to accumulate credits to receive an A.B. degree, so I spent an extra summer at Stanford, when I took the course in genetics from Dr. Danforth and also took a course laboratory techniques, where I learned to make microscope slides. I also had a course in microbiology where one of the main things I remember was that there was epidemic equine encephalitis, which was killing horses. So I went with a very fine scientist name Gephart and we went out and did autopsies on a couple of horses to get the brains out. That was quite a major job. It's a lot harder to get out a horse's brain than it is to get out a man's brain. That was a very stimulating experience!
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