50 Years of Medicine: Experienced doctors look back, new Brown med students look forward

Something old, something new

One thing that hasn’t changed (much) is the anatomy course. Fifty years later, students are still dissecting cadavers, in contrast to many of their peers across the country who learn anatomy via virtual tools. In the 1970s, anatomy was “infamous” for its level of difficulty, Kenney added, and that’s still true today. Aja Tucker, a member of the school’s Class of 2026 now in the first months of her medical student experience, said that so far, “anatomy is probably one of the hardest classes, because it has new terms and material that I haven’t seen before, in comparison to other classes.”

The spaces where Brown’s medical students learn anatomy have, thankfully, evolved over 50 years. Mitchell’s first lecture took place in “a reproduction 16th-century Dutch amphitheater” in the basement of the BioMedical Center. “We all sat on these little stools in a very steep room and looked down” at the professor, he said. As for anatomy lab, every student underwent the rite of passage of “smelling like formaldehyde,” Mitchell said; when they went to lunch at Faunce House, “no one would sit near us.”

Today’s students have very different rites and routines: After completing their hands-on work in the state-of-the-art anatomy lab on the third floor of the dedicated Warren Alpert Medical School building, they can take a shower and change their clothes in adjoining locker rooms.

Of that building, which is a short walk down College Hill into Providence’s Jewelry District, Kenney said: “It was a major conceptual leap for Brown to build teaching space away from — not on — the [main] campus. That’s a big difference for the students now. They identify the medical school with that building.”

With more space has come more students. The M.D. Class of 1975 numbered 58, while the M.D Class of 2026 has 144 students — more than twice as many.

The class composition has changed significantly, too: the first class was just 22% women, compared with 53% today; the earliest classes had little racial or ethnic diversity, while 27% of the newest class is comprised of students from backgrounds underrepresented in medicine.

There’s more geographic diversity, as well: 50 years ago, nearly every medical student had earned their bachelor’s degree at Brown; now they hail from 57 different undergraduate institutions, from all over the country and the world. They apply to the medical school via several paths that didn’t exist in 1972, including Brown’s Program in Liberal Medical Education, post-baccalaureate linkages and the Early Identification Program (EIP), which admits promising Rhode Island residents from selected colleges in the state.

The school also has an EIP relationship with Tougaloo College, a historically Black college in Jackson, Mississippi. It was through that route that first-year student Tucker — and her older sister, Nailah Tucker, a member of the Warren Alpert Medical School’s Class of 2024 — came to Brown.

“I literally followed her and did the same thing she did,” Aja Tucker said. A native of Arlington, Texas, she said she had expected a class of mostly New Englanders, but she’s met many fellow Texans and other Southerners. “It’s nice to know these people are also adjusting to living in the North,” Tucker said.

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