Anecdotes of Meneely’s Teaching

CLIFF MEADOR ACCOUNT (Med School Published 20013)
Cliff Meador graduated from Vanderbilt Med School in 1952, before going on to a distinguished career as an Internist who became Dean at the University of Alabama, before returning to Vanderbilt where he last served as Chair of the Vanderbilt/Meharry Alliance with great success. During Med School, he spent a summer in Meneely’s lab, learning the ropes from working with George Meneely with several other students. He tells the following story in his book from which I quote below.

“Dr. George Meneely ran the research laboratory at the Nashville VA Hospital. In addition to our summer research project, there were other groups working on an artificial heart and lung machine, another measuring the effects of high sodium diets in rats, and others attempting to define the vitamin requirements of humans. It was quite a varied group, and it reflected Meneely’s multiple far reaching interests. To say Dr. Meneely was a large man doesn’t put it quite right. He was huge, massive, gargantuan. At six feet three inches he was tall, but on top of that he weighed more than 350 pounds. Some large men wear their trousers under the belly bulge, and some wear them over the bulge, but Meneely wore his directly on the greatest diameter of his considerable belly. His waist must have been in excess of sixty inches.

Three afternoons a week, Dr. Meneely directed Hank, John, and me to hear him lecture in the auditorium down the hall from the lab. The scene had a surrealistic character to it. The auditorium could seat more than three hundred people, yet there were only the three of us. The first day we thought we were just early for Meneely’s talk. We soon found out that we were the only audience, and would be for the rest of the summer. Why he chose to lecture in the large, hot auditorium instead of his conference room is still a puzzle. The stage was equipped for a full theatrical presentation, with heavy stage curtains, lighting, and all of the paraphernalia of a theater. The whole thing was quite formal. We sat there waiting for Dr. Meneely’s arrival. Usually at a few minutes after 1:00 P.M., he walked briskly down the center aisle, entered a side door leading to the stage, walked across the stage, and sat in a chair behind the podium for a few moments, saying nothing. After pausing, he rose, cleared his throat, and mounted the podium. He would have done exactly the same thing if the auditorium had been filled. Meneely stood several feet above floor level. The three of us sat in the chairs on the front row. In order to see Meneely we had to lean back and put our heads on the backs of the folding chairs. This view elongated Meneely into a giant Buddha figure hovering above us. The setup reminded me of Orson Welles at his most extreme weight. Meneely’s position directly above us made us slant our bodies into a nearly supine position in our chairs.

Meneely cleared his throat and began. “Welcome to the statistics program for this summer. Those of you among us for the first time will need to know a bit about our course outline.” Meneely went on to tell us the lecture schedule and some dates when he would be out of town. He continued, “Aaah, a few housekeeping details before I launch into the agenda for this afternoon’s material. I will expect 100 percent attendance at these lectures. You will find the material at times difficult and at times even beyond your grasp. From time to time, I will entertain questions, but as a matter of course I ask that the audience hold their questions so that others may follow the flow of my concepts without interruption . . .” He was reading from his notes and did not deviate even one word. This went on three afternoons a week, always immediately following lunch. Staying awake was a constant battle.

There was one memorable day in late June. As usual, Meneely’s eyes had become fixed on the ceiling. He was gone—oblivious to anyone’s presence. Soon he was lost in statistics, figures, standard deviations of the mean, coefficients of variation, sum of the squares ofthe differences from the mean . . .and then the sounds began to blur. The sounds came in and out of my mind and resonated with the huge window fans making their futile effort to remove the heat from the unused and un-air-conditioned auditorium. The sounds blended into one sonorous hum and combined with my full stomach. He knew  just about everybody in academic medicine, and would not hesitate to pick up the phone and call them. One time we got into a discussion about Prinzmetal angina—a peculiar set of findings on EKGs associated with anginal chest pain. Meneely’s assistant was named Con. He called out, “Con, get Prinzmetal on the phone.” In a moment, Meneely was on the phone. “Myron, George Meneely here. Fine . . . yes . . . no .. . yes . . . no . . . in Chicago. OK.” He went on for some time discussing an upcoming meeting. “Say Myron, when the ST segment is elevated only in the lateral leads with no reciprocal lowering in the limb leads, what do you say to that finding?” He went on into considerably more detail in his questions, losing me in the complexity. Then he hung up. The information was condensed and presented to us, straight from the horse’s mouth of Myron Prinzmetal himself. It was as though he had called Pasteur or Lister or even Osier. Here we were in the back end of a rambling VA hospital listening to Meneely talk with the great medical minds of the day. He did that with several other medical luminaries, impressing us with each phone call or side story or tale of some patient he had seen.

Once we were discussing the day’s work in his office, and Meneely was playing with a small oddly shaped glass, passing it from one hand to another. I asked him what it was. Without pausing he answered in his most offhand manner, like a stage aside, “Cupping glass. King Farouk’s personal physician gave it to me.” He continued with what he had been talking about as though this was just a trivial comment. King Farouk had just been deposed as King of Egypt and was a big item in the news.  I could not let it pass and questioned him about the cupping glass. “Cupping glasses were used by physicians of old. Still use them in Egypt. Ali Hamid Cussef, personal physician to King Farouk, gave me these. Said he often cupped the king with these to reduce fever. Odd ducks, those Egyptian physicians.” He described how the hollow cup is first heated and then held tightly on the skin of the patient. The warm unknown sedative compound. A great sense of relaxation and a need for deep sleep overpowered my feeble effort to remain awake. I felt like I had been pre medicated for surgery. The muffled sounds, the hum and drone eventually took over, and I slept.

Suddenly a loud bang jerked me to full consciousness. It took a few  moments to know what was going on. Hank, long gone into deep sleep,  had slipped off the edge of his chair. The folding metal chair had collapsed and fallen backward, making a loud racket. Hank was lying on the floor. He was pitiful. Still barely emerging from coma, he looked like someone who had just had electroshock treatment. He had slobbered down his face, his eyes were bloodshot, his hair all rumpled. He was soaked in sleep sweat. John and I, not in much better shape, pulled the chair back up and then helped Hank get back into a sitting position. All the time, we were looking up at the stage to see if Meneely had noticed. Dr. Meneely paused briefly, looked down at us over the rim of his reading glasses, said nothing, and returned to his lecture and oblivion. He never mentioned the episode to us. Three days a week, immediately following lunch, we suffered these one-hour lectures. He was obviously using notes from some better attended class he had taught previously and frequently. Each day we fought the battle to stay awake, and each day one or more of us fell asleep, no matter how hard we tried to stay awake. As we accumulated more and more data from the experiments, we spent more time in Dr. Meneely’s office going over the results. These were the days before computers, so we had to do all our figures by hand or with a mechanically cranked adding machine. It was slow, tedious arithmetic, and Meneely directed us in all the calculations personally. The banter and side remarks and telephone interruptions made the experience delightful. I came to enjoy Meneely’s company thoroughly”.]

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