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P&S Journal

The P&S Journal: Spring 1998, Vol.18, No.2
(Not) Only the Names Have Changed

When Abbie Knowlton was a first-year student at P&S in fall of 1938, she could not have known that in death her early letters home—written as Esther Abbie Ingalls—might captivate colleagues and friends who survive her.

And when Rebecca Tennant began documenting her medical school experience as first-year medical student Rebecca Clyde in September 1993, she was not thinking about how her initial observations might parallel observations one of her teachers shared with her family nearly 60 years earlier.

Despite parallels in content of what the two wrote home, their motives were somewhat different. Abbie Ingalls was writing home to tell her family in Virginia how she was adjusting to life at P&S. Rebecca Clyde was fulfilling the same obligation to family in California but now looks back on her writing as a way of expressing her feelings and grounding herself “during the hardest four years of my life.”

The most striking difference between the communications by the future Dr. Knowlton (she married Peter Knowlton in 1942, the year she graduated) and the future Dr. Tennant (she married Jean-Paul Tennant in 1994) is the mode of communication. Dr. Knowlton used monogrammed stationery (“EAI”), pen, and ink. Dr. Tennant used a Tandy computer from Radio Shack, a modem, and a Columbia e-mail account to write and transmit e-mail to her parents and her future husband.

“My family has been playing a large role in my life lately,” she wrote during her first year at P&S. “Every day I write an e-mail to my parents. It’s sort of like a journal, sort of like a gripe session, sort of like an electronic umbilical cord that stretches over 3,000 miles to California.”

She also recognized the need, as a writer, to share her experiences with others. “Especially in the first weeks of the first year,” Dr. Tennant said in a telephone interview from her Berkeley, Calif., home, “I was so lonely. I’ve always been a writer, and writing was a release and a creative outlet.”

Dr. Tennant graduated in February 1998; originally a member of the Class of 1997, she delayed graduation to give birth to a son in January 1997. During her year off from P&S and under the guidance of Dr. Rita Charon, associate professor of clinical medicine who conducts the second-year humanities and medicine seminar, Dr. Tennant compiled the e-mail she sent during her time at P&S. “It was therapeutic to review the writing, and it helped me to stay in touch with my medical education.” She hopes to publish a book based largely on her e-mail exchanges and other writing she did during medical school. “Trying to balance becoming a doctor, a wife, and a mother all in the space of four years has been a challenge. I feel a need to share my experiences with others who would like to do that too.”

Her writings recount various experiences and events, such as her unsuccessful—then successful—efforts to have a baby, her life as a newlywed medical student who practiced her clinical skills on her husband (who appreciated the attention no matter how educational), and the first time a patient assigned to her died.

Dr. Knowlton was Dr. Tennant’s teacher in her first-year medical interviewing class. Dr. Tennant remembers being immediately struck by her; she wrote an e-mail home describing her as kind and patient and a tremendous role model.

Dr. Tennant will begin a family practice residency at the University of California-San Francisco in July. These excerpts from Dr. Knowlton’s September or October 1938 letters home and from Dr. Tennant’s e-mail to her parents in Fall 1993 deal with their observations about first-year anatomy class. Excerpts from Dr. Knowlton’s letters were read by Erica Shoemaker’98 at Dr. Knowlton’s memorial service in November.

The e-mail headers have been altered to conceal e-mail addresses, and Dr. Knowlton’s handwriting is simulated.

copyright ©, 1996 Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center

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