. . . [Dr. Penn is a] third generation graduate of Washington University School of Medicine. He’s here for the 50th reunion of his class; the Class of 1933.
It was convenient, when I came back this time, to bring back my grandfather’s diploma from the Medical College of the City of St. Louis, as the Latin scholar translated it.
What was your grandfather’s name?
That’s (grandfather) James Stevens Penn, who was in the class of 1858 as a graduate. His preceptor was my great grandfather, Dr. George Penn, who was also a Trustee of the Medical College of the City of St. Louis.
And what years was he Trustee? Do you remember?
Well, according to the catalogs in the Archives here, he was in the years of 1856 through and including 1860. And I believe our catalogs carrying are omitted and the school files are omitted during the war years.
The Civil War years?
The War Between the States.
Yes. Okay – the War Between the States. I stand corrected.
Later on there is a Dr. William Penn as a preceptor and on the Board and I believe it was in the years of 1879 and ’80. And it is the best of my knowledge he was a grandson of Dr. George Penn, so he would be a cousin of my father. And he was connected to the school, but he was not a graduate. The occasion to bring the things [diploma] – I am the first grandson of James Stevens Penn who became an M.D. I was entrusted with the safe keeping of his diploma and it has been abused through the years, but while it was in my custody, since 1927, I’ve kept it in a safe deposit box. And it has not deteriorated and with considerable effort and persistence, I had it restored to its original condition by the Huntington Museum in Pasadena, California. And had the Latin translated by the professor of Latin at St. Mary’s College – Brother Theophane (spells) T-h-e-o-p-h-a-n-e – in the Latin department of that college.
And you brought that here?
Well, I brought a reproduction and I thought that it should be in the Archives at Washington University.
That was the big poster-size diploma?
Yes. That diploma is, by actual measurement, twenty-two and a half by twenty-seven and a half inches. All in Latin, even the name James is spelled J-a-c-o-b-u-m.
It is my intention to give the original to the custody of my younger sister’s son. He’s Nicolas Penn Bernier – (spells) B-e-r-n-i-e-r – when I can’t take care of it any longer.
Is he going into medicine?
He is a practicing physician. [He’s] in the Academy of Family Physicians in Brainerd, Minnesota.
Wonderful country up in Brainerd, Minnesota. Was your father a physician?
No, my father wasn’t.
But your grandfather was?
My grandfather, as I understand, he was killed in a horse and buggy accident in 1880 when he was making a call at night. And his practice [was] in Creve Coeur, Missouri. Do you know how to [spell that]?
Sure, I know how to spell Creve Couer. (Spells) C-r-e-v-e C-o-e-u-r. So he was in practice here in St. Louis County, back in horse and buggy days?
Sure he was. That was 1880. [There was] nothing particularly illustrious in his career, just by accident that I got a hold of the diploma. Thought it would be a good time to bring it here.
Who gave you the diploma?
My father’s oldest brother – his eldest son. He was an attorney. He passed away in 1927 and he gave it to me before then, so I’ve kept it. The diploma, as ascertained by the Huntington Museum’s research – it is made of unborn calf’s skin, rather than sheep skin.
I’ll be darned. I wonder if that was common back then.
Do you want to ask me something about it?
I’d like to know about it.
Well, I’d say, I know a little more about me.
Okay, I’m going to get there. Let’s see, William Penn was—
I think he was a brother of my grandfather. They were sons of—
So he would have been a great uncle of yours?
And he was a preceptor with the—
No, he was I think he was on the faculty and a preceptor in 1879-80 – we saw it in the [catalog].
And that would have been the Medical College of St. Louis?
Yes, it was still the Medical College of St. Louis at that time.
Okay. Did their affiliations with what later became the School of Medicine influence you to come here?
Oh yes, when they amalgamated to send the files here, their pamphlets and so forth – it’s in there – the chronological composite organization from the Missouri Medical College. [ed. note: In 1891 Washington University affiliated with the independent St. Louis Medical College and established the Medical Department of Washington University. In 1899 the other prominent independent medical school in St. Louis, the Missouri Medical College, joined the University.]
Did you know all that when you applied for medical school here?
Yes. I’d known my grandfather had been with the St. Louis College of Medicine. I determined to be a doctor in 1917 when I was carrying water and food and lunches for the harvest hands thrashing wheat in Lincoln County, Missouri.
And that’s when you decided farming wasn’t for you?
Yes. Of course at that time riding horses and the hay harvest hands asked me what I was going to do with all the money I was making. I was making a dollar a day and so I said I wasn’t going to work in that hot sun the rest of my life. I want to be a doctor. I pursued it and had the good fortune to get through Central Methodist College in Fayette, Missouri in the class of ’29. And then I came on here and went through.
What was it like when you got here? What did the place look like?
We have all the pictures of it here.
Had you been to St. Louis before?
Oh yes. Occasionally, I’d come up. And I had a first cousin that had been through the School of Nursing at Barnes Hospital and we’d been down to see her. I’d been in. And then on my mother’s side we had Colonel – they called him Colonel – Paul Brown, who was my grandfather’s brother on my mother’s side. And he was a trustee of Barnes Hospital. And he was also on the Board of Curators at Central Methodist College.
Was he the Paul Brown of the Paul Brown Building?
He built the Paul Brown Building here in St. Louis, yes. And so he was interested in medical education, but he died in 1927 also, so he didn’t see me through. It might have been financially easier getting through if I had had him as a sponsor, but I did manage to borrow some money.
How did you get through it? Did you borrow?
Oh, yes. I had to borrow. And then I was, I guess, one of the first recipients of the Jackson Johnson Student Loan Fund. And I got that for two years in 1931, ’32, through ’33. In keeping with that, I had the good fortune to have a little more income than I spend, so in 1977 I started the Memorial Student Loan Fund in the name of my wife, who is deceased, and myself. And I contribute to those with _____(?). If we go along, in that manner, I think we can pass on to help other [students].
I think student loan funds – because I went to college on student loans strictly – is one of the most important things people can do.
So I have contributed [to] Washington University on the odd years and Central Methodist College on the even years. So I treat them equitably.
When you graduated from Washington University in ’33, what did you do?
I went to City Hospital, St. Louis and when the Democrats took over in 1934 – beings I was down there I had some Republican sponsors and when [Bernard F.] Dickman was elected Mayor I went out with the other Republican appointees.
Weren’t you doing your residency down there then?
Well, not then; I was just interning, so I was out. I was a registered Democrat, but I had Republican relatives that recommended me there, so I went out. And with the Depression at its worst, I had to go find [a] better place to make a living. So I started in California and I got to San Francisco. My wife and I had seven daughters and forty-two cents left when we got to San Francisco, so I stopped and went to work. There really was no Depression in California like there was in the Midwest at that time. They didn’t feel it. I got there on a Thursday and never had seen any living person in San Francisco before. I forgot – excuse me – [I got there on] Tuesday, and never had seen any living person there before, and on Thursday I had two jobs.
How did you do it? Knocking on doors? Calling up doctors?
Well, that’s a long story. I met one of the former residents of Lincoln County, Missouri and he told me to go into the hospital that he knew and one of the superintendents at one of the hospitals. And I went to see about if I could I get a job as a resident house officer there and he said, “No,” – he didn’t have an opening. But he had been the assistant superintendent at one of the other hospitals and one of their residents had come down with tuberculosis and he was looking for help. And I went out there and before I could— When I got back to the apartment from being interviewed and had the job – it was as soon as I had my credentials forwarded from City Hospital and Washington University, because they couldn’t hire you in California without presenting evidence that you were qualified.
What hospital was that?
It was St. Luke’s in San Francisco. And I got back and there was a call from the first superintendent I went to see, and one of the doctors was looking for a lab technician. His lab technician was a lady that had taken her vacation on the _____(?) to go to Hawaii and back for three weeks and he needed a lab technician and so I didn’t take the residency. I took the lab technician job because it was [a] golden opportunity; it paid thirty dollars a week.
What did the residency pay?
The residency paid twenty-five dollars a month.
Wow! How could you live on twenty-five dollars a month?
Well, I lived on nine dollars a month at the City Hospital here in St. Louis. So when you got thirty dollars a week, you was in the money – big money! And by the time that job expired, I saw that they had emergency hospitals in San Francisco and having worked in the Emergency Room in both the St. Louis County Hospital (as a student) and at the City Hospital in St. Louis, I knew a little bit about it. So I went down to see the Director of Health and [they] said that he had the appointing of the doctors. So I stopped in his [office] – without an appointment I went down. I stopped at the secretary at the desk of his outer office, and he was back through in his office with the door open. And I went in to see Dr. Draggert(?) and requested— And the secretary said do I have an appointment? I said, “No, but I’ve got plenty of time. I can wait until Dr. Draggert is free.” She [asked] what did I want to talk about and where I went to medical school. And I said, “Washington University in St. Louis” and she had heard of it and Dr. Draggert had heard back there [in his office] – he’d heard of it. In a few minutes he said, “Miss Murphy sent that young man from St. Louis in here to see me.” And we talked a little and he was the same way. He said as soon as you get your credentials from St. Louis that he could put me on as a relief surgeon because the surgical jobs – the full-time jobs – were in great demand and only very well-qualified people got them. At that time they were paying two hundred dollars a month. So I worked as a relief surgeon around there for four years before I got [my] contacts to become a surgeon and I stayed on then. I went to war for five years, after [the] war I came back.
Where did you serve in the war?
Every theater of war. I was with the Navy and took the Navy ship, the biggest transporter in the United States had in the ship services.
What was that?
We carried troops. We started out carrying about six thousand and then we expanded it after Pearl Harbor and then carried over eight thousand to eighty-five hundred troops overseas and brought back usually from twenty-seven hundred to three thousand wounded coming back.
So you were the ship’s surgeon?
Yes. With several others. First there were only two of us on board and then—
Did you actually do surgery aboard ship?
Oh my, yes, sure. The first craniotomy I ever did was aboard ship. We had to. We had people with broken skulls and crushed bones and fractures. We had to do surgery. [There was] nobody else.
Most of your surgeries would be done when you were bringing the wounded back.
A lot of them would. A lot of them had their major surgery on board hospital ships or in base hospitals, and we’d bring them back to various ports in the United States. In that time, on that ship – I was on twenty-two months and I made eighteen trips south of the Equator. [I was in] every theater in the war; I was almost captured in Singapore. I’m going back to Singapore next Saturday – the fourteenth, I believe. I’m going back for my first visit to Singapore.
And they won’t be on the lookout to capture you now, will they?
No. The Japs won’t. Even the last ships have got out of Singapore; ours were still operating with the British. But I came back – and San Francisco was wonderful to me and so was Washington University.
I’m glad to hear that. So you live in San Francisco now?
No. San Francisco – I don’t want to be pessimistic, but it degenerated so in recent years and I [managed] to sell off my property there in ’76 – took that – and I’ve quit practicing in medicine, but I had my office in medical buildings and eventually I sold my condominium where I lived and got out. I live in Walnut Creek now. Walnut Creek is actually twenty-five miles from downtown San Francisco – east.
So it’s still the San Francisco area then?
Yeah. (I can’t think of much more.) I’m happy to be back here and see [others]. First reunion I’ve come to.
[The first I’ve] been able to attend.
You must have been too busy then for the thirtieth or the fortieth?
Oh, yes. Something doing all the time. I usually come back to Missouri because I still have a lot of relatives here. I usually come back for the second weekend in June and we have a reunion at that time. There are still fifteen of us first cousins.
Are they all in the St. Louis area?
No. They are all scattered all over, but most of us get here the second weekend in June. It’s been a pleasure to work with the Alumni Associations in San Francisco.
That’s where I’ve seen your name and face before.
For the phone-a-thons and things. It’s quite an opportunity to benefit the university and I had the time to talk on the phone.
What do you think of the medical center these days?
It’s very good. A note in passing – I collapsed with a coronary occlusion in Troy, Missouri in June of ’81 when I was here. I called Dr. [Samuel B.] Guze and [asked] if he could find a place for me and he did – through the good services of Dr. [Allan S.] Jaffe and Dr. Guze I’ve never had a pain or [further] episode. I come every year and have my physical and [annual] check-up. When I was here the day before yesterday and Dr. Jaffe said, “I liked your cardiogram. It was perfect.” So far he couldn’t see, couldn’t believe that I’d ever had a coronary [before]. But I’m still taking his medicine. So I’m fine.
Turn it [off].
Turn the thing off? I will turn the thing off.