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Alpha Omega Alpha

A centennial of service

The condition of American medical education at the turn of the 20th century would shock all but the medical historian. Only a handful of the 155 entities identified as medical schools in the United States offered scientifically based training, hands-on laboratory experience, or practical clinical rotations.

The vast majority stood in marked contrast to the model medical institutions then flourishing in Europe. They were for-profit outfits owned by physicians, often with dubious credentials. Instruction was base d chieflyDistinguished Medical School faculty members S. Marx White, M.D. (top), and George D. Head, M.D. (bottom), were two of ten charter members of the University’s Alpha Omega Alpha chapter. on didactic lectures and rote memorization; diplomas, often for purchase, were awarded following pro-forma examinations. Admission standards were minimal. In 1900, of approximately 25,000 American medical students, fewer than 15 percent had more than a high school diploma. Many were barely literate. They—and often their teachers—lacked basic understanding, or even awareness, of the astounding advances transforming European clinical and laboratory medicine; few had goals beyond acquiring a diploma and simply earning a living.

The creation of Alpha Omega Alpha

In 1902 William Webster Root and five fellow students at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Chicago determined to address this sad state of affairs by organizing a student-led society dedicated to excellence in medicine. Root envisioned the new organization as a remedy against “a condition which associated the name of medical student with rowdyism, boorishness, immorality, and low educational ideals.” Its founders sought to eradicate this disreputable image and recast medical students as serious scholars and committed humanitarians.

The organization, called Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA), was the first—and remains the only—national medical honor society in the world. Upon election, members affirmed an oath modeled after that of Hippocrates and pledged a lifetime commitment to professionalism, scholarship, leadership, and service. Root chose as the society’s motto “Worthy to Serve the Suffering.”

In 1910 Abraham Flexner’s celebrated muckraking report on the quality of American medical schools generated public outrage, leading to a rapid improvement in medical education. AOA flourished as well. Within a decade, AOA chapters were formed at 17 U.S. medical schools.

University of Minnesota Medical School

Founded in 1888, the University of Minnesota Medical School was ahead of its time. Its first faculty, including several men trained in Germany and Austria, were well aware of the knowledge explosion in scientific medicine. With minimal resources, they struggled to make Minnesota competitive.

In 1902 admission standards were changed to include an entrance exam and a year of college preparation. Despite adverse effects on tuition income, standards were raised again in 1905 to require two years’ preparation in an accredited college or university.

The results were substantial. In 1909 Flexner wrote that Minnesota was “the first state in the union that may fairly be considered to have solved the most perplexing problems connected with medical education and practice.”

AOA: The Minnesota chapter

In 1908 an AOA chapter was established at the University of Minnesota Medical School. The ten charter members were Roy N. Andrews, John C. Brown, Charles R. Drake, George B. Eusterman, George D. Head, Ernest E. Hemingway, Winthrop D. Sheldon, Mathias Sundt, George H. Walker, and S. Marx White.

White and Head were distinguished members of the Medical School faculty, perhaps selected to serve as mentors to the fledgling society. Eusterman was a widely respected member of the Mayo Clinic staff and a professor of medicine in the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine, University of Minnesota at Rochester.

Then as now, AOA eligibility requirements included academic ranking in the upper 25 percent of the class together with evidence of leadership, fairness, compassion, integrity, and service. Since its inception, nearly 3,900 University of Minnesota medical students have been elected to AOA.

AOA membership: An honor with responsibilities

In 1930 Elias P. Lyon, Ph.D., then dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School, delivered an address to the AOA Society at St. Louis University Medical School that distinguished AOA’s expectations of its members from those of other academic honor societies.

He said that because of their gifts, those elected to AOA were morally obliged to strive for “better medical education, better teaching, fuller medical knowledge, better medical practice, better medical service for all … people, better public health, [and] better understanding and respect for medicine and doctors.” He encouraged electees to become professors, directors of research institutes, editors of medical journals, authors, clinical innovators, mentors of medical students, and community advocates.

AOA: The Minnesota tradition

Last December, the 100th group of University of Minnesota medical students was inducted into AOA. The centennial celebration featured a tribute to James H. House, M.D., who has served as chapter councilor for the past 20 years. A distinguished orthopaedic surgeon and Medical School professor, House has been active in AOA since his own induction in 1962. Under his leadership, the Minnesota chapter has become one of the most active chapters and one of the top fund-raisers in the country. A medical student scholarship fund the chapter started in the early 1990s has awarded more than $135,000 in assistance to more than 70 University of Minnesota medical students. This year an endowed fund was created in honor of the chapter’s centennial.

The spirit of William Root and others like him lives on at the University of Minnesota Medical School.


By Jane Braverman, Ph.D.

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