Dr. Leonox Baker
The classical image that comes to mind of medical school teaching is a large class assembled in an amphitheater with the students sitting above in the tiered seats while a professor presents a patient from the pit.
This is certainly not as common now where individuals in small groups use high-tech communications equipment as when presentations were made live to large groups.
Many classical paintings of such amphitheater scenes are extant and surely influence my memory. For me the keenest images that come to mind involve lectures in the amphitheater rather than demonstrations.
When I think of my hours in the amphitheater, one scene that comes to mind involved Dr. Leonox Baker. Dr. Baker, Chief of Orthopedic Surgery, was an institution in the early days of Duke Hospital and became a legend in his own time and remains one to this day.
He had come to North Carolina in the early days after Trinity College had become Duke University. The powers-that-be apparently had decided one quick way to establish broad prominence for the new school was to field a competitive football team, which would rise quickly in the national standings.
Wallace Wade had taken his Alabama football team to the Rose Bowl, which was then the apex of grid-iron achievement, so he was hired as head football coach to sow the seeds of Duke football prowess, and he indeed did this.
He brought with him his young athletic trainer, Leonox Baker. As the football effort gained clout in the college football hierarchy Baker parlayed his way into medical school, I believe at Johns Hopkins, which would become the seedbed of Duke's medical faculty for a few years hence.
Trained in orthopedic surgery which in those days was the repository of athletes, or "jocks," who studied medicine but is now-a-days known as "sports medicine" and includes not only orthopedic specialists but a smattering of physicians and par-medical practitioners with similar interests in athletics, physical therapy, promoting physical fitness and repairing maimed bones, joints and sinews.
When Duke Hospital first opened its doors in the early 1930's orthopedic surgery was part of the Surgical Department and was largely administered by the general surgeons, who by and large had become expert in all branches of surgery during the nine-year residencies they suffered through at Johns Hopkins.
When Dr. Leonox Baker finally came aboard at Duke he was named the first professor and Chairman for Orthopedic Surgery. He also married the daughter of the President who was the institutional president who had helped talk James B. Duke into converting small Trinity College into a major university, and became Duke's first president.
You might say things worked to the advantage of Dr. Baker, but the truth is -- with all these connections -- he could not have prospered as he did had he not been a dynamic and competent physician and teacher.
Dr. Baker continued his interest in the health and healing of the football players, and this spread naturally to a fatherly interest in all of the athletes at the University as the other sports took their place in the American firmament.
Today football is no longer the lodestar of Duke athletics, a position that has been assumed by basketball. However, the Orthopedic Department remains a national leader in sports medicine, a legacy left by Dr. Baker, now gone on to meet his Maker.
He well remembered many of the players and epochs of Duke football when the program was at its apogee.
I was back in Durham in the mid-1980's as a physician field representative for The Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Hospitals and involved in the surveying of Durham County Hospital that had started life as Walt's Hospital and had served as a practice site for many of the Duke graduates who fell close to the tree when they ripened.
On the survey team with me was George Bolinski, a former hospital administrator and a product of the department at Duke University devoted to producing such professionals. George came from the coal-fields of Pennsylvania from where has also been mined a rich lode of football players, at Duke and elsewhere.
George was a lineman and was a member of the team that had played in the 1941 "Rose Bowl" -- a game actually played in Duke Stadium because hosting the Rose Bowl on the Pacific coast was considered too dangerous for such a large gathering in those opening days of America's participation in World War II.
One of the Durham County Hospital Physicians with whom we were closely working in our survey was also a Duke graduate, had season tickets to the Duke game and was generous enough to share them with George and me during our visit.
Someone pointed George out to Dr. Baker who was sitting across Cameron Indoor Stadium and Dr. Baker came over to sit and chat with George during half time.
They talked of the Rose Bowl Game played some forty years before and lost to Oregon State, I believe, in the last few plays.
George and Dr. Baker recapped those plays as if they had taken place the week before and both allowed as to how Coach Wade had made a mistake in calling for a quick-kick, a play which he frequently used as a surprise maneuver and often to good advantage.
George Bolinski had not only been a star player on an outstanding team but had shown up at Duke with internal derangement of his knee, sustained in his high school play in Pennsylvania.
Dr. Baker had surgically repaired the knee the summer following his freshman season and they had sustained a close relationship ever since.
Such was Leonox Baker's detailed recall of the cast of characters and events in the halcyon days of Duke football, now long passed.
Dr. Baker had a well-worn reputation of being outspoken, and riding hard both medical students and his lower-staff of physicians.
However, it all seemed a game with him, because if someone he was working over ever stood up to him, he immediately desisted and adopted these folks as sort of favorites.
Those who buckled under to his kidding were forever doomed to receive more of the same.
At once, his actual sallies were generally quite humorous.
One day he was waiting for us to gather in a classroom for a lecture and standing in the door as if undecided about something was a member of our class who also happened to be the wife of Dr. Bluch-Schaffer, one of our biochemistry professors.
She was also quite pregnant at the time.
Dr. Baker waited for a minute or so, and then called to her in a loud voice so we all could hear, "If you two will come in we'll get started."
He was also full of teaching ploys and numerics to help us remember the clinical pearls he dropped before us.
He was adamant about the first thing to be done in treating any kind of fracture -- traction should be applied at once.
He often told us that we should think of "traction" whenever we saw him walking down the hospital corridor.
One day as I entered the classroom he called out to me, "Bridgers, what do you think when you see me walking down the hall?"
I tilted my head, put tongue in cheek and said, "Traction!"
He smiled broadly.
He obviously caught the double meaning of my answer and I knew the meaning of his smile.
From then on he treated me as a friend.
He retired from teaching and practicing about the same time that the state of North Carolina established a Department of Health and Human Resources to replace the old Department of Public Health and was appointed by the Governor to be the first Secretary of this department.
My last contact with him was when Edie and I ran into him and his wife at a seafood restaurant in Morehead City while we were all vacationing at the beach.
As was his manner he seemed to remember me and was his usual affable self as we chatted briefly of older times.
This brings us back to the medical school amphitheater.
At his lectures he threw and hit those who dozed off with small pellets of chalk.
One day in the amphitheater a student in the very back and highest tier of seats drifted far off into the arms of Morpheus. For about five minutes, Dr. Baker assaulted the area with chalk but his distance from the sleeping student defied accuracy.
In frustration Dr. Baker finally called up to a student sitting next to the sleeper and said: "Wake that fellow up!"
The neighboring student knew Dr. Baker's penchant for kidding and harassment and thus replied, "You wake him up -- you put him to sleep."
Dr. Baker led the peels of laughter.
Edited May 2002
Back to Medicine index