Sunday, October 5, 2014

Medical Education Through Love Letters

One of the goals of this blog is to expand my knowledge of medical education history. For this reason, I picked up The Courtship of Two Doctors: A 1930s Love Story of Letters, Hope & Healing without any knowledge of its subject, and it has been a very enjoyable read. It tells the story of two medical students, Joe Holoubek and Alice Baker, who met at during a summer fellowship at the Mayo Clinic in 1937 and corresponded via mostly handwritten letters that served as a foundation for what would become a 65-year marriage. It was fun to visit a time when people saw movies starring Paul Muni, listened to the big band music of Guy Lombardo on the radio, and used words like “gosh” and “gee” without irony. At this time, one could complain that a medical license renewal cost a dollar, while a renewal can cost several hundred dollars today.

The letters make it very easy to become nostalgic for a time that was long before most of us were born. Of course, it was also a time when tuberculosis could be deadly. When Holoubek discusses the regular topic of the widespread political and social turmoil in Europe—“Let us hope that Hitler stays away from there,” I felt a touch of sadness knowing what was to come and that Holoubek’s wish would not come true. They also lived in a world where segregation was common even in hospitals. Holoubek recalled a black child brought to the pediatric service he was working: “We have no colored wards, so we put the kid in a cubicle alone & all the others formed a ring around & just looked. Quite a sight for some of these country children who have never seen a Negro.” Such instances wipe away any nostalgic feelings I might have had.

While these two future doctors lived in an era very different from our own, one can still very easily identify with the occurrences that mark their daily lives: the birth of a nephew, the strain of family illnesses, and the pleasures of holiday vacations. Many of the stories they relate are quite unremarkable, even banal, like everyone’s life. Their affection for each other grows into love in a very natural, undramatic way that nearly anyone can recognize. Holoubek is forthright in his writing and unfailingly polite, just as one might expect from a Nebraskan. Baker is very self-depreciating, often apologizing for her letters, but she also has a quiet strength that reads clearing throughout her writings.

Their time for laughing at a new Charlie McCarthy broadcast or catching a preview screening of The Buccaneer is limited, of course, because they are medical students and interns during this period of letter writing. They are constantly working themselves to the point of exhaustion. Holoubek sounds like many medical students I have known when he writes, “I feel like a slacker today. I quit working at 8:00 this p.m.” For our purposes in the blog, these letters are most interesting because they give us a private glimpse into the daily lives of two fairly typical medical students in the late 1930s. They serve as an ethnographic record of medical training during this period. While medicine and medical education has changed in countless ways in the last seven decades, their concerns are similar to those of medical students today. They discuss difficult classes and professors, nervousness about securing positions for post-graduate training, and the first highs and lows of working with patients. It was an enlightening glimpse into the lives of medical students and residents between the World Wars.

I will look closely at one historical issue presented in these letters soon.


Fitzgerald, Martha Holoubek, ed. The Courtship of Two Doctors: A 1930s Love Story of Letters, Hope & Healing. Shreveport: Little Dove, 2012.


  1. Delighted to find your posts on "The Courtship of Two Doctors"! I am the author and editor, a former journalist with two history degrees. Because the letters are a treasure of primary source material, I took two intermediate steps before publication:

    1. Edit and annotate all the letters (nearly 800), placing copies in medical archives at Mayo Clinic, University of Nebraska, and Louisiana State University-New Orleans. There’s a 24-page research guide for historians and students of midcentury medicine and medical training, including medical symbols, acronyms, and shorthand. Excerpts from only 300 letters were published in the “Courtship” collection. “The Holoubek-Baker Letters, 1937-1939: An Annotated Collection” includes the other 500 letters, rich with information about patients, illnesses, treatments, professors, and physicians.

    2. Explore in depth the differences in late-1930s medical training in Omaha and New Orleans [“Courtship of Two Doctors: 1930s Letters Spotlight Nebraska Medical Training,” Nebraska History, 92:2 (summer 2011).] Nebraska introduced clinical training in the sophomore year and put senior students on “outcall” duty throughout greater Omaha. Louisiana, like most U.S. medical schools, postponed clinical training until senior year.

    The Holoubek-Baker family would be most pleased if our parents’ letters serve to inspire and enlighten later generations of health professionals.

    Martha H. Fitzgerald

  2. Thank you! I know these letters will serve as an invaluable record to many people in the future.