|Today is December 20, 1994, and Karoline Gourley and Lori Hefner are here with Dr. John Gofman for the purpose of creating Dr. John Gofman's oral history.
|How is [it] that you first became attracted to science as a profession?
|I really was a child of the Depression; I would say my first reaction out of high school was, "It would be nice to be able to get a job, any job." And there were no jobs. I spent the summer after graduating from high school trying to get a job, any job, and couldn't.
|What year was that?
|1935, and I didn't have the ambition to be a scientist or anything else. I
just tried to stay alive. I then decided maybe since I'd done well in school in
mathematics and science, I'd try to [get] into engineering school. Because as
far as my dim vision of science was concerned, engineering and science were the
Someone from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute [(New York)] had visited my high school and said that they hadn't had any students from Cleveland, Ohio (where I lived) before and that if the school nominated someone for a scholarship that there was a very good chance of getting it. The math teacher talked to me about it and I thought that was a great opportunity. So I applied for a Rensselaer scholarship and thought no more about it, figuring I was going to get it. [When] anyone asked where I was going to go to school, if I were going to college, [I would answer,] "I'm going to Rensselaer." Except when April came around, I got a letter saying: "They are very happy you've been accepted for class, but we've run out of scholarships above the level where [your] name came in." They could have sent me anything, actually, if the tuition were $50: I didn't have $50 to pay for tuition. So that ended my Rensselaer appointment.
Then there was an engineering [school] in Cleveland, Ohio, called Case School of Applied Science. I took the exam for a scholarship at Case and tied for fifth, which was good enough to get me a half scholarship, which I also couldn't afford. I was about to give up, or either go to Ohio State or just not go to college.
Then, somebody suggested that there was a school near Cleveland called Oberlin College, and I said, "That's a music school and I'm not a musician." [He responded,] "No, there's a college there as well as a conservatory." So I went down and talked to the Dean of Admission, and he said, "You're a little late applying for a scholarship." See, it was already summer, but they were very honest and gave me a first-semester scholarship with arrangements called student aid, [by] which you were eligible for half tuition, if you did well.
So with the scholarship for the first semester and the possibility of student aid, I went there with a combination of board jobs, stoking furnaces, and cleaning up snow. I managed to get through the first year, and then things got easier and easier. Because I got regular jobs for my board. The Democratic Administration had a thing called the National Youth Administration [(NYA)] and in college you could get a job and work up to 30 hours a month at 50 cents an hour, so that [provided me] $15 a month, which was a very, very good thing. Roosevelt had put that into that situation. I got one of those NYA jobs, starting my sophomore year.
I had my chemistry the first year. A professor of chemistry named Luke Steiner, a very fine man, a very good chemist, had given me an opportunity to work with him in his lab. Beginning sophomore year, I worked in his lab on his research project, which was the study of the absorption of various vapors on porous gels. I worked with him for 3 years (sophomore, junior, and senior year) and I then decided I ought to be a chemist. But for some strange reason, I can't really explain my senior year in college. I thought about the idea of medicine, especially the idea of doing chemical research in medicine. Dr. Steiner thought that was a good idea. At Christmas vacation, there are a certain number of things that are very irrational in my history. I might as well just tell you.
|Oh, go right ahead.
|I decided I ought to go to medical school. I went over to Western Reserve Medical School in Cleveland and I went to the front office, the dean's office. There was a very nice lady, tall lady, Juliette T. Brown, and I introduced myself and said I would [like to] apply for admission in medical school. And she said that the medical school admissions were closed sometime ago.
|I'm late again. She said, "Why are you applying now?" I said, "Because
I just made up my mind this week to apply." Ordinarily, people should throw
someone out of their office when they come in and say these things. It just
didn't occur to me that it was that brash. She said, "Where do you go to
college?" I said, "Oberlin." She said, "what are you
majoring in?" I said, "Chemistry." She said, "Aren't you a
pre-med?", and I said, "No." I would still have to make up some
things to be a pre-med, because I knew I hadn't had courses like Cat Anatomy. It
turned out-talk about the quirks of fate-the dean of Western Reserve Medical
School, Torald Sollman, was a pharmacologist, and chemistry was his love. She
[(Ms. Brown)] said, "How are you doing in chemistry?" I said, "quite
well at Oberlin"; I had my record with me. She went off, saw the dean, came
back, and said, "Dean Sollman will see you."
I went in to see Dean Sollman, who had a stack of journals about this high. (holds his hand, palm down, about two feet off the floor) He would peer over the stack of journals and he appeared to be about 70 yearsold at the time. He said, "I understand you would like to apply for medical school and that you're a chemistry major." I said "Yes." He said, "Have you taken the Medical Aptitude Test?" I said, "What is that?" So he told me, "Here, I'll give you the test right now," and he did. I handed it in and he promised to let me know. Remember, I didn't have all the requirements to get in.
So about four weeks later they sent me a letter saying I was admitted and that I would have to make up the missing courses, which were Embryology and Cat Anatomy. I couldn't get both in before the fall semester, but I agreed I would dissect a cat in the summertime at Oberlin, and I did. But I did get into the Embryology course.
I enrolled in Western Reserve Medical School in the fall. I got along fine in medical school that first year, but I could see I was not going to learn much about chemistry in the Biochemistry Division of the medical school. Western Reserve had a new professor of anatomy. The old professor of anatomy had just died a year before, [and he] was from a Scottish school that always felt they had to terrorize medical students. But the new professor was a great guy, Normand Hoerr. I got to know him.
He had done a lot of research and had a Ph.D. as well as an M.D. In those days, it was pretty exciting doing histochemistry on tissues. I talked with him once, and said, "You know, I think I'll go back and study some more chemistry before completing my medical education." And he said, "That's a good idea." I went to see the dean who had admitted me and gave him my reasons. He said, "it's a silly idea." He said, "All the chemistry you need is here." But I wasn't convinced of that.