Recollections of an alumnus
Editor’s Note: This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Penn State College of Medicine groundbreaking. The first class of students entered the College’s doors in 1967. Dr. Owen B. Ellington is a member of the fourth graduating class. Late last year, he gave a speech at the annual alumni dinner that discussed his memories of campus at that time.
When Dr. Owen B. Ellington entered Penn State College of Medicine in 1970 as a member of the fourth graduating class, the College as it is known today was still being built.
The main Crescent building was a work in progress, with only the medical school wing completed. Otherwise on campus, only the student housing, animal lab and research facility were complete.
Ellington returned to the College to share reflections on his experience at the annual alumni dinner late last year.
He provided many relatable snapshots of the early years of the campus.
“I wanted to bring a vision to those at the dinner who weren’t there back then, to have a visual remembering who and what existed at that time,” he said. “I thought that if I could bring up some of the people and professors, it would create a recollection in the minds of the people who were there.”
Ellington reminisced about the brutal cold of the wind whipping across the Crescent and the smell of unprocessed milk and fertilizer.
He reminded listeners that there were no fast-food chains or even a movie theater in the area at the time.
“Though it probably would not have mattered because all I did was study, study and study,” he said.
He shared his memories of both the humiliating and equally exhilarating experiences in biochemistry with Dr. Eugene Davidson, where he discovered he was not the best chemist, and in anatomy with Dr. Irwin Baird–the meticulous detail with which he taught the course and “professed by example.”
“There were long nights studying in the lab and stadium seating classrooms, the ‘cadaver-walk’ and most certainly the challenging exams,” he said.
“I remember Dr. John Waldhausen, and my quest to be a cardio-thoracic surgeon, until I was repeatedly awakened at 3 o’clock in the morning to hold a retractor during surgery, and told ‘do not move’ for two hours while surgery was being performed and my arm feel asleep,” Ellington said.
Ellington remembers medical school as challenging. In the early years, he said, the College had something to prove.
“I think that the University was in a position of wanting to make a name for itself and wanted to make certain that it had the best in the way of the educational process for making a physician,” he said.
Ellington was impressed with the early curriculum and found that there was a great deal of support from his professors to make certain that the early students would be successful and capable physicians.
The genesis of the College was not without its frustrations.
“Because it was so new, in some ways, there were some of the academics advancements at that time could not be done in Hershey, so we had to utilize other hospital facilities, such as Harrisburg Hospital,” Ellington said. The Medical Center was still in its infancy, having just opened in October of 1970.
Overall, he was pleased with his experience.
“I felt that the educational process was outstanding and the preparation was certainly better than I think we all realized at the time,” he said.
Ellington and his classmates were able to assess how well they were prepared once they “got out into the real world.”
The validation came during his first year of residency.
“After leaving the College of Medicine I completed my internship and residency at the County Hospitals in Los Angeles, California,” he said. “I excelled and became the chief medical resident and was later accepted into a fellowship program in hematology-oncology at the City of Hope National Medical Center in Los Angeles. Ironically, this was the course that I had failed and repeated in the pathology track here at the College.”
After his fellowship, Ellington went into private practice and eventually joined the staffs at Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Cigna Health Plans of America in Los Angeles. In 1988, He moved to Houston, Texas and, over time, became the medical director of several insurance companies and major health care plans.
During his visit in Hershey, Ellington admired the many upgrades made over the years.
“I looked at the major changes over the last 40 plus years and said ‘my, this has become a big operation,'” he said.
Ellington is originally from Harrisburg and has intermittently visited over the years and has seen many changes.
“Having this opportunity has given me an opportunity to see how futuristic the University is in this point, in time in terms of its facilities — particularly the Children’s Hospital, which was the hallmark of our visit,” he said.
Ellington enjoyed the tour of the campus that allowed him to see the advancements both in architecture and patient care.
He also relished the opportunity to see some old faces.
“Dr. Chet Berlin, who I remember vividly, was a taskmaster,” Ellington said. “It was really heartwarming for me to have an opportunity to embrace him again.”
Ellington also used the opportunity to speak to the younger alumni members and the current students of the College.
“I would like the younger graduates and students to know as a pioneer of this College of Medicine that my experiences and education allowed me to be competitive and confident, “he said. “I was not the genius of my class – we were all poised for the rigors and scrutiny associated with being competent physicians.”
He reminded them of the many medical advancements as the result of the work of the research mission and the opportunities now afforded to them as a result of the research grants, honors and endowments that have increased and been awarded to the College over the years.
Ellington attributes much of his success to the quality of the education he received at Penn State College of Medicine.
“It has been 41 years since I left the college and since leaving, my life has been absolutely incredible.”
By Jade Kelly Solovey
Entry filed under: Alumni.