6.12.1913  -  12.12.2002

Books of N.M.Amosov

Recollections. University years

Since I was afraid to sit the exams at Moscow University, I went back to Arkhangelsk and decided to apply to the local medical school. It had been opened three years before, starting from scratch. The school was housed in two old two-storey buildings. Heads of the theoretical departments had been invited from other places. Looking back now, I can say for certain: the professors were good, not inferior to those whom I've been meeting in the capitals for thirty years. Their assistants were young people, fresh out of medical schools or post graduate students without degrees. But they were all enthusiastic about their work. What about the laboratory and other equipment in the departments? Naturally, there were no electronic devices at that time, but there were an abundance of corpses for the dissecting room. By the time we were enrolled, there was already a first-rate anatomical museum.

The hospital clinics were not bad either. Not the large impressive buildings of today, just adequate. Well, there was not enough room for everyone who needed treatment — patients could be seen in the corridors more often than not; unfortunately, this picture is not rare even today.

During the entrance exams I stayed at the hostel: the applicants lived in a big hall adjacent to the dissecting room. To reach our residence, we had to cross a corridor with large concrete baths built into the floor. These deep baths were filled with formalin, and corpses were floating in them. The attendant — an elderly old-fashioned man with the appearance of an intellectual — casually fished out and handled the stuff. Piles of arms and legs could be seen near by. The smell of formalin made our eyes water.

The young men with whom I shared the room were very young — country boys from Arkhangelsk and Vologda Regions. Their knowledge was poor, and I looked like a professor compared with them, explaining physics and chemistry before every exam. I had just turned twenty-two and had a record of "managerial work." Besides, I had completed a year and a half the industrial correspondence course. But this background of mine didn't help me much in the dissecting room: I was as sick as everybody else.

It was there that I first met Boris Kotochigov who became my first friend for thirty years, to his very last day. We were the same age, and his life had been similar to mine — nine grades of school with specialized teachers' training; afterwards, he taught in a high school. His mother was also a village obstertician. Boris was very fond of reading; he was better educated and cleverer than I, although he never went farther with his academic career than assistant professor. We took immediate liking to each other during exams; every evening we went walking along the Dvina embankment, talking politics and literature. Our friendship was based on affinity, as they used to say in the past.

We passed the exams and were enrolled in the same group: he was appointed the group leader, and I was elected a trade union organizer. The first lectures were very dull: I dozed all the time and had to ask my neighbour to wake me up if I fell asleep in class. It took me almost two months to get accustomed to my new way of life. I was quick to learn, but the cramming was depressing. However, even this "technique" was soon mastered...

We lived for one month in the hall behind the dissecting room; then a new hostel was opened and Boris and I moved in there. The room we lived in housed six students, and the beds stood so close to one another that there was literally no space left. (By the way, this was the first time in my life that I had slept on a real bed — before, I had known only wooden planks.) My roommates were uncooperative and tactless: they slept evenings and crammed at night, reading their textbooks aloud. To get any sleep, I had to plug my ears with soft wads of bread.

In October, the hostel was invaded by lice, and it took us some time to get rid of them. Although unpleasant, they provided diversion in our humdrum lives.

Alya stayed in the old hostel, and our family life got somewhat complicated. Not only were we living separately, but she was one year ahead of me; money was in short supply, and she suddenly developed a taste for fancy dresses.

I was always a pedant, even in my younger years: food was calculated in terms of calories per cost. We could afford margarine, but butter was beyond our wildest dreams.

Our studies were not difficult at all: all the cramming for medical school was a piece of cake compared with the correspondence course. Two months of studies passed, and I got bored. At that time, Alexei Stakhanov, a miner, impressed the entire country with his outstanding performance, producing double the amount of his daily norm. A new movement engulfed people in all walks of life — to double or even triple efficiency. That was exactly what I needed: to complete two years of studies in one. Moreover, it was easy to arrange — the freshmen studied in the morning and the sophomores, in the afternoon or even in the evening. The vice-president of the school dave me permission, provided the faculty of the second year didn't object. There were no objections, so I started my experiment.

Dr. Sedov — the vice-president — gave me his blessing: "Go ahead, but on one condition: no low grades and all laboratory assignments and work at the university clinic has to be done according to the syllabus. Lectures may be attended or not, as you wish."

God bless this sensible man.

I was inspired by my endeavour and worked hard from early morning till ten in the evening — in the institute, the library and the clinic.

By the way, the public library in Arkhangelsk was superb; it was housed in a one-storey building opposite the theatre; it has been demolished now. I spent many hours there: I used to come every afternoon and stayed in the reading room till the closing hour — I simply could not study in the hostel.

I attended the second-year classes with Alya. At first her fellow-students treated me as a stranger but soon got used to me.

My priority task was to pass the winter exams in anatomy and histology with the sophomores. I had only two months left to cram the location of some 1,500 points on the human body. Moreover, I had to be able to show them on a corpse. I memorized anatomic atlases first and then went to the dissecting room when I already knew the stuff. On average, I covered one section of anatomy every week.

In the afternoon, I attended the second-year classes in physiology, biology, political economy, etc. When the lectures were good, I listened attentively, but when they were dull, I didn't waste time and studied other subjects.

I passed the exams successfully; all in all, there were five of them — for the first and second years.

The second semester was easier. I had developed a liking for physiology, read more books and began pondering about various theories. My relations with Alya were subject to periodic ups and downs. In the spring, I took an extra job at the power plant, working for those who were on leave. It was interesting to return to my first trade. By summer, I had completed an important and fascinating task — I developed a new heat diagramme of the plant and presented it in a carefully made drawing. Thus I earned 250 roubles. The money came in handy: summer vacation was at hand. The spring exams gave me no trouble: I passed them all with the highest marks. My efforts and good performance during the year paid off: I was awarded a watch with an engraved inscription: To the best student. The watch served me till the middle of World War II. (As a student, I repaired watches and clocks as a hobby. Watches were very few and simple at that time. It was easy to repair them, and — which is more important — my hobby saved me money.) To complete the picture of my life: I sewed my own trousers and even turned out a jacket — because I didn't have enough money to pay a tailor and out of curiosity both.

It was during that winter that I met Dr. Vadim Loshkarev who had been put in charge of the chair of physics before I was admitted to the medical school. During my first exam in physics, I got only a "B" grade and wanted to take it over. So I went to him to ask for permission. It was also during that period that I began to think about an artificial heart. I realize today that it was a rotten idea, although quite logical. I showed a drawing of my "invention" to Dr. Loshkarev, and he approved of it. The heart wasn't made in the long run, but I got to know him better.

During my second year at the medical school, I attended classes for the third-year students. For some time, Alya and I lived in a room in the unfinished wing of the regional hospital; however, we were asked to move out at the beginning of winter. Soon, we found a room in a village, some three kilometers away from the town. The rent was fifty roubles a month. It was a nice room with a view of the river, which had a strange name — Grasshopper. Two things spoiled our happiness, however: the village was far from the school, and the rent was high. Nevertheless, we brought our things across the river on a sled and started a new life. Meals were cooked in turns: the main one was pea soup with some meat. We dined in the evening, and a saucepan of soup usually lasted for three days.

The third year in the medical school marked the beginning of our medical studies proper: we worked in the university clinic and attended patients. The workload was not excessive. I went to the medical school president with the request that I be allowed to complete another two years in one. No dice: "You need to see more patients," was the reply. Maybe he was right, but I was deeply upset at the time.

The lack of adequate work for the brain made life miserable and dull. To keep busy, I made a false move and joined anew the correspondence course at the industrial institute. (I had been dismissed a year before for not completing the assignments.) Frankly, I shouldn't have done that: new commitments diverted my attention and consumed a lot of time. It would have been much better if I had taken up some research work: Dr. Loshkarev had organized a first-class neurophys-iological laboratory by that time and invited me to join him, but I was reluctant to work with frogs' feet.

At the industrial institute, I specialized in steam units for power generation. I knew that area and could easily graduate, but I got carried away by a new idea — to design a big plane with a steam boiler and a turbine. The project took more time than my studies or even a doctoral thesis. I concentrated on technology, paying less attention to medicine. Well, I continued going to lectures — students had more discipline in my youth — but I didn't care much about what was said there: I used that time to calculate my projects on a slide-rule. I took the semester exams early and left for the industrial institute in Moscow. Besides all that, I had an extra job. Starting with my fourth year, I taught in an orderlies' school, giving various lectures — even about eye diseases. Thus I learned the fundamentals of public speaking; these skills proved to be extremely valuable later when I became a professor.

But the main headache at that time was my "project." I read countless publications, spent endless sleepless nights thinking over possible design concepts, and performed numerous calculations... I even had to master aerodynamics, because I was designing a plane, not just an engine. Everything I did was aimed at the achivement of my objective. I designed various parts for the future plane: the boiler, the turbine, and other components. Today, being a realist, I can only wonder at what an idealist I was! Yes, I was serious in my intention to design a plane that would take off, although I had already had one bad experience with a board-moving device. Perhaps my present day fancy for cybernetics and models of the personality and intellect as well as other off-beat ideas have the same roots.

Well, I do not regret the waste of time — my efforts gave me good mental training. Even then, it helped me to study in two institutes concurrently.

In spring of 1937, Alya and I were given a room in the hostel. We lived there till 1940 when we left Arkhangelsk.

There was a fine class reuninon of our medical school graduates in 1974 — to celebrate thirty-five years since our graduation. Alya also came to the party. We went to that house together... Can you imagine, one woman had lived there since the late 1930s! She recognized us and showed me my old drawing board which she still used instead of a table. A touching moment, by the way. If I were a romantic, I would have taken the board with me as a memento. Unfortunately, a big roll of the airplane drawings which Alya had left behind when she set off for the front had disappeared. Most probably, they had been lost or burned in someone's stove during the war.

The plane I had designed was a huge one, almost as big as a modern IL — 86, but it was less powerful. I must admit that it was a sheer nonsense — to dream of a plane equipped with boilers and turbines. I blush every time I recall that enterprise of mine.

Practical medicine did not attract me, although I was a good student and never missed lectures or my duties in the university clinic. For instance, I attended only one delivery and assisted twice in simple operations.

On the eve of my graduation, I was called in by the president who offered me the opportunity to take a graduate course in Field Surgery — he had been a military surgeon once and headed that department in our school. The thunderclouds of war were already looming on the horizon. I saw that he was right, so I accepted his offer and that's how I became a surgeon.

Medical school was over. I had left four years full of work and aspirations behind. I graduated cum laude having received only two Bs on my finals — one in dialectics and other, in topographical anatomy. (The examiner in anatomy was Professor Orlov; he's still in Arkhangelsk and a good friend of mine.)

I began to work as a surgeon in a traumatological clinic — a neat one with thirty beds — in August 1939. Patients with fractures used to stay for a long time. It took me four months to learn to treat injuries and wounds. My first operation was in early August: I removed an atheroma from the back of a patient's neck. The operation was quite a long one and not successful: as a result, the wound became inflamed later.

In November, it was time to take my final exams at the industrial institute: I'd received a notice from Moscow. So I took three months' leave and left for the capital.

I was allowed to use the design of my plane as the basis for my diploma paper and to defend it. At the same time, they were unable to find any consultants for that project: there were no specialists on steam engines for aviation in the country. So, I had to take the risk. But was there any risk at all? I had already one diploma and I could do perfectly well without another one.

The winter was severe; it was the year of the Russo-Finnish war. I feared that I would be drafted and would not be able to graduate.

The diploma project was completed by January. According to the rules, I was supposed to present eight drawings: I produced twenty, plus calculations and explanations. Everything was ready but... here came the trouble: I couldn't present the project to the graduation board without the signatures of consultants and opponents — and I had none. No one would review my drawings and calculations, claiming they knew nothing about the subject. Besides, I hadn't been very persistent in my desire to obtain the required signatures...

The situation was saved by the dean who signed all the papers without looking at them. But he signed for the consultant, so I had to find an opponent who would bless the project. It took us ten days at least to find one. Finally, we succeeded in our search and found a well-known engineer who was on the board of the Ministry of Heavy Industry. He agreed to have a look at my drawings. I still remember his appearance: a tall, gray-haired man of noble looks. He wore a strict suit and talked very little, only to the point.

I was a little bit scared when I brought him my drawings. "If they're no good," he said, "I'll give them back without any written review. Phone me in a week."

I had spent that week in agonizing suspense, waiting for his judgement, then called him and went to his place. By that time I was disillusioned in my project and thought that it would have been better to put a gas turbine on my plane. It was too late, however, and my only wish was to defend the project before the examination board.

On my second visit the engineer was more hospitable. Obviously, he'd liked the idea, although he called it wishful thinking. At the same time the idea was an original one and appealed to him, and he even said that I was a "born engineer." He invited me for a cup of tea and asked about my plans for the future. I told him that I was a doctor and he disapproved of my profession, saying that it lacked a scientific basis and the medical practice per se was poor — technocrats treated us with contempt at that time. Handing me the drawings back, he offered me his help if I decided to become a designer. Verily, I was very much pleased with his offer, although I had never overestimated my capabilities and never thought of myself as of another Thomas Alva Edison. Even in my green years.

With no more obstacles left, I defended my project on February 18, 1940. The drawings occupied the entire wall, and I was given some twenty minutes extra to explain them. Again, I graduated cum laude — that was a special decision o.f the board, because I didn't have the necessary number of the highest grades. By that time, I already knew that the draft board was looking for me.

After graduation, I took my design to the Ministry of Aviation Industry, although I didn't cherish any hopes about it. My premonitions came true — the project was rejected, and I went back to Arkhangelsk, where I waited for a notice from the draft board, but the war ended in early March.

N While I was in Moscow, the old medical school president had retired, and his department had been absorbed by the hospital surgery clinic headed by Professor Mikhail Alferov — he had been one of our lecturers in my fifth year.

He was a difficult man to deal with: gloomy and perpetually displeased, he kept his staff in constant fear. As a surgeon, he was in a class all his own — the best in all of Arkhangelsk Region. We thought of him as of an old man: he was gray-haired, with a short haircut and military mustache. His wife was much younger than he and they had a small child. By the way, he himself had performed a Cesarean section on his wife for he distrusted the local gynecologists. He performed all sorts of operations: on the stomach, urological system, extremities, neck and head — everything except the chest. Everyone feared pneumothorax like a bad dream. He had begun his career as a surgeon before the Revolution in a small provincial hospital. I remember him in a stressful situation: he had operated on a patient with a pelvic injury and had had to wash out the urinary bladder with an antiseptic that contained mercury. The bladder was injured; the toxin reached the pelvic tissues, and the poisoned patient died in front of our very eyes, when his kidneys failed. No one dared to look at the professor after that, so miserable and depressed he was. That was my first encounter with a fatal surgical error...

I worked only one month at the clinic: the "old man" depressed me — I had assisted him just a couple of times, afraid that he might tear me to pieces.

In the early April, I elicited a transfer to the clinic of the surgery department, to Professor David Tsimhes. There, the atmosphere was completely different; serious operations were very few, and even fairly minor ones lasted several hours. For instance, it might take the professor four hours to perform a stomach resection; and he would end up chewing his mask due to inner tension and over-concentration. I assisted him on many occasions and performed two appendectomies — with the aid of older colleagues, of course.

Nevertheless, I didn't like my trade, particularly with all that primitive equipment and the poor instruments we had. I decided to wait till the beginning of summer vacation and requested permission from the Ministry of Public Health to be transferred to a graduate course in physiology.

My family life was on the verge of collapse: mutual alienation had become more pronounced. There were no arguments; we just communicated less and less... Besides, Alya went away for three months to upgrade her professional skills. Her absence only further aggravated the situation. Although I remained loyal to her, I suddenly became aware of the existence of other women. I was not a womanizer and had few successes in this area. But one thing was obvious: our marriage had become a burden.

To make a long story short, when I left Arkhangelsk in July, I was determined not to come back again. Our separation was a peaceable one: we'd decided to see whether we needed each other. All my things fit in one suitcase: a dozen books on surgery — the rest of my library, including my beloved Mayakovsky, remained with Alya. I had several shirts and some other items of clothing, no more. In fact, practically my whole wardrobe was on my back.

I moved to Yaroslavl where my sister Maria and uncle's widow Natalya with her son Sergei lived. This sister was my only remaining link with other relatives. Thus, Yaroslavl became my base camp, as it were.

Then I went to Moscow where I spent four days going from one big shot to another, trying to obtain permission to change graduate courses, but in vain.

Finally, I decided to turn over a new leaf in my native Cherepovets. I had not been in the town for some four years, but it had changed very little, if any. The only noticeable difference was the higher water level in the river — the Rybinsk dam had become operational, and many villages had ceased to exist, engulfed by the reservoir.

Dr. Stozhkov, the chief doctor of the local hospital and an old physic ran, offered me the job of replacing the only surgeon they had, Boris Stasov, who was going on leave.

Today, when I recall those days, I feel somewhat embarrassed: I'd completed only one year of graduate school. What else had I done? — I'd changed jobs three times and performed two or three appendectomies, treated some wounds and injuries, and cut a couple of phlegmons — that's all. Even my record as an assistant was poor during those last three months with Dr. Tsimhes. At least, I knew how to deal with fractures. Naturally, I hesitated to assume responsibility for the surgical department of a regional hospital with fifty beds. Nevertheless, I accepted the offer, perhaps because I was a presumptious creature. I imagine the other doctors at the hospital thought I was impudent — they were all experinced medics. Frankly, I was sure that I would cope with the job, and fortunately for my patients, I was right...