Interview with  Arthur B. Otis, January 7, 1977

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Interview with Arthur B. Otis, January 7, 1977
Otis, Arthur B. ( Interviewee )
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University of Florida Health Science Center Oral History Collection ( local )
University of Florida -- History


This text has been transcribed from an audio or video oral history. Digitization was funded by a gift from Caleb J. and Michele B. Grimes.

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Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, Department of History, University of Florida
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This interview is part of the 'University of Florida Health Center' collection of interviews held by the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program of the Department of History at the University of Florida
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MONOLOGUE: Arthur B. Otis

DATE: January 7, 1977



This is a monologue by Dr. Arthur B. Otis and it is part of the University
of Florida Health Center Oral History Project. Dr. Otis is currently a
professor of physiology at the Health Center.

Dr. Otis joined the faculty in 1956 after having served previously on the
faculty of John Hopkins and, before that, the University of Rochester.
Otis accepted George Harrell's invitation to join the faculty because he
liked the idea of teaching at a new school and he was impressed by
Harrell's enthusiastic nature. Classes were small thus a good rapport was
established between students and teachers.

Otis speaks well of Harrell, the College of Medicine's first dean, and
Russell Poor, the first provost. He feels Poor's strength lay in
representing the College's interests in dealing with politicians and the
state legislature. Overall, Otis agreed with Harrell's educational
philosophy and his design of the Health Center. He feels Harrell gave his
department chairmen enough freedom and discretion in running their
departments. Harrell left the University, Otis says, because he no longer
found the job as dean a challenge. He was at his best when he was design-
ing a new medical school; not running an established one.

I'm Arthur Otis, and I came here in 1956. Until early 1956,

I had never heard of Gainesville, and I was probably not really

aware that there was a medical school forming here. The first

recollection I have of it.was in my office at Johns Hopkins when

person came in and introduced himself as Tom, who was already at

Gainesville and had already joined the establishment here, and he

told me that they were looking for a professor of physiology, and

asked me if I would be interested in being considered as a candidate.

I told him I'd be willing to look into it. Somewhat later in the

spring, I was invited by Geroge Harrell to come here.

I left Baltimore one morning, and had an uneventful flight

to Atlanta, but planes weren't taking off from Atlanta for Jacksonville,

because of the weather, so I spent about eight hours in the Atlanta

airport. I had been scheduled to arrive in Gainesville at three or

four o'clock in the afternoon and, as it turned out, I didn't get

here until 10:30 in the evening.

There was an incident on the way from Jacksonville to Gainesville.

We did finally get to fly from Atlanta to Jacksonville, but the trip

from Jacksonville to Gainesville had to be made by Greyhound bus, and

part of the way along the route, there had been an accident. I looked

out, and there was this big tractor-trailer truck turned over on its

side, with half of it blocking the highway. It seems the driver had

swerved trying to avoid a hog, which had crossed the road. So, we

didn't arrive very early that day.


The next day we had an opportunity to talk with George

[Thomas] Harrell [Dean of the College of Medicine, Professor of

medicine], who told me all the plans, and showed me the skeleton of

the building, which was rising out of the mud here. I was very

impressed with Geroge's enthusiasm about this new school, both

the physical plant, which he obviously loved, and his general

philosophy that he stated about it. It looked like an exciting

new venture. Eventually, after my return to Baltimore, he called

me on the phone, and offered me the position as chairman of physiology.

I thought about it some more, and accepted his offer. I think I

did it largely because it was a new school, and because George

Harrell's visionary outlook made it seem exciting.

It certainly was, in the early days, quite an exciting thing.

It's much more appealing, I think, to start a new school than it

it to go to an old one. At least the problems are somewhat different

then; one also can feel that any mistakes he makes are his own. He

doesn't have to spend time repairing someone else's errors.

I actually came in the first of July in 1956. The building

was not yet ready, but we had to make plans to be able to teach a

course in physiology the following January. So, the summer was

spent mostly ordering materials and equipment for the laboratories.

I had gotten two staff members during the spring. Melvin Fregly,

who is still with the department, and Ernest [Bevier] Wright, who,

retired a few years ago [Fregly came as an assistant professor. He


is now a graduate research professor]. I had known them previously

at the University of Rochester. [Wright came as an associate professor

He was a full professor at the time of his retirement.] They fitted

in very well. So there were three of us on the staff the first

year, and we brought with us two graduate students. Ernie Wright

brought John P. Reuben, who had been a graduate student at Rochester.

I brought Stephen M. Cain. These two eventually became the first

Ph.D.'s from the health center graudate program. They are now

professors of physiology, Cain at the University of Alabama in

Birmingham and Reuben at Columbia University in New York City.

We were able to move in the new building, in October of that year, and

it really was an empty place, with the three of us and our two graduate

students roaming around with no equipment at all. But it shortly

began to arrive, and we formulated our course for the first-year

students, and by the time January rolled around we were able to keep

one step ahead of them, during that semester. I think, in many ways,

this was probably the most fun we ever had, doing all of this for the

first time in a brand new space, with new equipment and new students.

I don't know who was more apprehensive about the situation, the

faculty or the students, but we all worked very hard together.

During the first year or two here, the faculty was mostly

basic scientists, as the clinical faculty, with the exception of a

few, were hired only later, since they weren't needed, so to speak,

until the students got through their first two years, which was


largely basic science. Those departments heads who were here

constituted the executive committee which met on a weekly basis, and

which served as the admissions committee and almost everything

else at that time, since we didn't have a large enough faculty to

draw many members from. We were an executive committee, admissions

committee, curriculum committee, and everything else.

There were some special problems that arose during the first

year. I mentioned we had two graduate students in physiology, and

other departments had some graduate students with them. But we had

no approved graduate program. A good deal of our: first half-year

was spent in presenting a plan for a graduate program and getting

it approved through the office of the graduate school. Dean [Linton E.]

Gringer [Dean of the Graduate School] was sympathetic with our

position, but it was difficult to convince him immediately that we

were really capable of mounting a graduate program on such short

notice. It became apparent right away that no single department had

enough strength to convince the graduate school that it should have

a graduate program, so we pooled our resources, and developed the

graduate program in Medical Sciences, with majors possible in the

separate disciplines. This scheme has since worked to our advantage

in many ways. Since the departments in general have been relatively

small, andhad small graduate programs, individually, we might have

had some problems in convincing the higher authorities that we were

really viable. But since we had a pooled program, it is clear that


when viewed from this point, we did have adequate numbers of Ph.D.'s

being turned out. Our graduate programs have been quite small, but I

think they have been good. In physiology, nearly all of the individuals

who have been granted the Ph.D. degree are engaged in some occupation,

and have appointments that are consistent with their training.

Most of them are on faculties of other medical schools. So, we're

quite pleased that they all continue to be productive in one way or

another, and contribute to the medical science or to the biological

sciences in useful ways.

In the early days, it was possible to know each of the medical

students more or less personally; and for the first year or two one was

able to know where the various individuals had gone, what they were doing.

But, over the course of the years, some of these things get quite

blurred. I now have difficulty knowing, if I meet a medical student,

a past medical student, what his name is, in the the first place, and

what year he was in school. These events of sort of coalesce at

various times.

For several years, we maintained the same original group depart-

ment heads, and then, for various reasons, they gradually began changing,

so that a majority of them have now been replaced by others. This is,

of course, a natural occurrence. Some of them left, I think, for

what they considered better opportunities, some of them perhaps left

because they felt conditions here weren't as good as they had expected--

perhaps they were disillusioned in some ways, which I think is always sad.

I'm happy to see a person leave a place while he would still like


to stay, so to speak. But at any rate, for various reasons,

people do go.

Of course, George Harrell left after, I've forgotten exactly

how many years, maybe ten years here, and he went to establish yet

another medical school. I think George's real driving interest was

building something new. He, really was dedicated not only to the

medical school as an institution involving medical education, but

he also thought a great deal in terms of the physical plant. This

was a special interest of his, the design of the building, and he

essentially knew where every brick was in the building, and what

it was there for. I remember he walked into our stockroom, a little

room off our stockroom, and there was a space under the bench there

that was a cart for transporting apparatus sitting out in the middle

of the floor. He said, "Why, this space under here was designed to

hold that cart." After that, we tried to keep the cart in that space,

because it bothered George's sense of propriety if things weren't

where he planned them to be. He really enjoyed planning the school,

especially,the physical plant, and also, I think, philosophically.

But I believe that he became somewhat frustrated, or perhaps even

a little bored at the problems of running the thing on a day-to-

day basis after the newness had worn off. I think that made the

opportunity to build another place, that Hersey, especially, attractive

to him. But he certainly had a great influence on the early development

of our institution. Although he had quite positive ideas about


medical education, he left his department chairmen very much

on their own in developing the curriculum and the educational

methods involved. He was willing to express his opinion about

things, make suggestions, but he never was in any way, dictatorial.

He let us go our way, and I think we're all grateful for..this.

And he supported us well in all our endeavors.

Another man who was involved with the development of the school

was Russel Poor :[Spurgeon], who was the first provost of the

institution. He contributed in other ways. I think there was

friction between him and George Harrell. Geroge may have

been concerned that Russ was doing things without telling him

about them. But, I think, Russ Poor contributed in many ways,

especially in dealing with legislative and other political

figures. I had a notion that he was able to talk with them in

their own language in a quiet and subtle sort of way to get things

for us that might otherwise not have been possible.

For about ten years the curriculum went on, basically-the same,

philosophically, at least, as it was initially. There were minor

adjustments that had to be made such as when the institution

changed from a semester system to a trimester, and then to a quarter

system, but these were mainly a matter of arranging the calendar

rather than any fundamental change in their philosophy.

But then, in the '60s, there began to be much ferment about

changing the curriculum, and this seemed to be some sort of a disease


which swept all over the country. I never really understood the

origin of it, but everyone seemed to feel that the curricula should

be changed. It never was very clear to me why these changes were

essential, but the changes were made, and I tried to go along

with them, because, personally, I never felt that the curriculum,

per se, was very important. The curriculum is sort of an arrangement

of things in the calendar, basically. The thing that is important

are the teachers and the students, and how they are able to get

along together. If the curriculum makes it easy for them to

benefit from each other's presence that's fine. If it makes

is difficult, then that's a disadvantage. But I have felt that a

great deal of time is. spent on developing a new curriculum, and

there are some good aspects to the changes that have been made,

but I think that the changes could have been made more efficiently.

I think that a great deal of time has been wasted by people

having to spend hours at committee meetings at which nothing very

productive happened. The discussions centered so much on the

mechanics of education, and very little on the substance. I think

that is wasteful of the talents of the people involved. I know

that, in our own department in the early days, we did spend a lot

of time together as a department, as a committee, discussing the

matter of teaching physiology to students, but the things we were

discussing were physiology. We were teaching each other so.

that we would all be adequate to teach physiology to the students,


but with the new curricular developments, people spent at least,

if not more time together in discussions, but the discussions

rarely involved content or science. They involved the mechanics

of doing things, which I thought were largely a waste of time.

A teacher, I think, in general, only knows how to do certain

things and whatever curriculum you may devise, a given individual

goes about doing what he can do. It's pretty hard to change it.

This isn't to say that they are not useful techniques, and that

the various media that are available are not useful, but ther6m.s

nothing magical about them. They don't in themselves add to the

store of knowledge, and they can only be used to help transfer


It appears now that the curriculum, having gone through

this upheaval, is gradually settling back to something resembling

a more classic curriculum. If there is concern among my colleagues

that the standards of education have dropped in recent years, and

that we're turning out an inferior product--I'm not sure that this

is so. I think the product may survive all of this. Students are

a very resi client lot, and they'll somehow manage to get an education

in spite of what you do to the curriculum. I think, on the whole,

the quality of the students maylhave improved over the years--the

average quality, at least. We certainly have a larger pool to select from,


Initially, I think, the school had a fairly clear philosophy


for educating physicians, which George Harrell expressed very

clearly. I'm not sure that we ever followed this philosophy completely,

but at least it was stated, and it gave one some guidelines to follow.

I'm not sure that the philosophy currently is as clearly stated,

and one might have to observe carefully to see what is underlying

all of our activities. I'm sure there is something there, but I

think we have no clear voice stating it, perhaps. I think that

many of our faculty, perhaps, devote less time to thinking about

the problems of medical education for the school as a whole than

was true initially. Initially, I think we were all somewhat

concerned with the overall education of the medical student, but

as the place got larger, and as the individuals in various departments

developed more oustide interests, they felt their stake in medical

education was rather a restricted one, and didn't bother to be concerned

with the problem as a whole.

The faculty forum, which was an informal meeting of anyone

on the faculty who cared to come for lunch in one of the small

dining rooms off the main cafeteria. This indeed was a forum

where anyone was free to sound off on whatever he wished to, whether

it was a matter of curriculum, or economics, or anything else

which might be pertinent or even not pertinent. This, I think,

was a very good thing, because it did allow everyone to speak

his peace, and no one was held to any. It was informal, and

no one was held to any commitments, as a result of what he may

have said here. Somewhere along the way, it was decided to formal-

ize this, and to have a faculty council 1 complete with a set of

bylaws, and Robert'-s Rules of Order, that sort of thing. This went

on for a few years, but gradually it seems to have eroded, so

that during the current year I don't think it has met at all. I'm

not sure the reason for this; I think, perhaps, it was founded with

the thought that the faculty could have more direct influence on

the administration through this formal organization. I think, actually,

it didn't have any more influence than it did when it just voiced

its opinions in the formal group, and I think that people found

out that it isn't all that easy to assume authority. That group

[the faculty], can have a great deal of power if it wants to work

for it, but it is more than a matter of just attending a formal

meeting, and passing a resolution, and leaving it at that.

So this faculty group, and the general faculty, I'm sorry

to say, doesn't seem to even try any more to do things as a group.

I don't know what the future may hold for that; we shortly will

have coming up the possibility for all the faculty to vote on

unionization. How they will vote, I don't know. But,-I-

have a strong feeling that any faculty group that supports the

union is going to end up feeling rather disappointed about the

results. That's my opinion. I may underestimate the power of the

union to produce good things. But I personally thing that the

union actually has no place in a academic institution, for philosophical


reasons and also from a practical point of view. I don't think

it can develop enough power to amount to anything.

I think one thing that has impressed me over the course of

twenty years is the increasing complexity of administrative processes.

This is due,, to the many sources of funds which are available to

the support of medical education and research and, in this institution,

to an increase in its size. However, it seems to me that the

administrative procedures have become harder to manage, more complex,

than they were initially. It seems that no matter how hard the

administrators seems to try to simplify things, they only succeed

in making them more complex.

I recall my first experience as a medical faculty member was

at the University of Rochester where George Whipple was dean and

professor of pathology. He managed to run the medical school by

sitting on his stool in his laboratory, and occasionally looking

over his shoulder. Those days, I'm afraid, no longer exist,

the deans of medical schools have a full-time job, and even

with several associate deans and assistant deans, they feel

constantly hurried. The whole business of medical education, and I

suppose of the university operation in general, is very complex

administratively. I somehow can't help feeling that it's

unnecessarily so, and that if one could blow the whole thing up

and start from scratch, you'd develop a simpler system.


The future in medical education, I suppose, is related to the

medical problems of the future. The influence of technology here

has had a tremendous impact. With modern, technological developments

and the availability of new drugs, the cost of medical treatment

has become unlimited. I think forty, fifty years ago there

were relatively few things that could be done for sick people.

With some diseases, one just tried to make people comfortable, and

let nature take its course. But with modern technology and modern

drugs, the possibilities of treatment are almost unlimited, and

certainly the costs are unlimited.

Now this makes one wonder how universal health care can be

administrated. It's ceratinly going to involve tough decisions

on someone's part, because there are just not enough resources

available to give everyone all of the possible treatments and

care that he might receive. Someone has to decide how these

resources are spent. Whether it's to be done on an individual,

economic basis, or whether there's judgement to be made as to

what is best for the health of the nation in general. These are

hard decisions I think no one yet has really faced up to. But it

ceratinly does offer an important problem, part of which has to

be shared by medical education.