We feared him, long before we met him: Professor Pinkes.
He was a brilliant man. Notorious. Revered. He was venerated with good reason—he was head of the physiology department. The latter gave him almost infinite power in the lives of medical students.
Our medical school training consisted of six years, plus a seventh, an intern year. The first year was filled with Basic Sciences, but the second year was dedicated to only two subjects: Anatomy and Physiology. The premise was quite simple—if you didn’t pass physiology, you’d remain a second year Med-student—in perpetuity.
Anatomy implied, a group of four students, would spend the whole year dissecting a single cadaver, preserved in formaldehyde. The formaldehyde eventually ate holes in our white lab coats and one could tell a second-year Med-student from a mile away, depending on the direction of the wind. No matter how hard we scrubbed or how long we soaked in the tub—the aroma of deceased body preserved in pervading chemicals was inexorable. That entire year, it became part of our being.
Anatomy-dissection sparked bursts of curiosity of how we were wired on the inside, learning about what made us, us. The hardest was—the acceptance part of our perpetual mal-odor. There was, however, never any fear involved—only a low-level of aversion.
We learned about dread in the physiology class. Oh, we did learn everything about how the bodies we dissected actually worked when it wasn’t impregnated with formaldehyde. We learned all about homeostasis, and I mean all there was to learn at the time, about how life is sustained on cellular- level, and how every morsel of the body is interconnected and how messages were relayed and functioned in harmony, to sustain order and life.
Some wretched souls did have to sit the year of physiology through a second and third time. Doing so, in the ever-presence of the Pink man. Therefor, studying hard and learning as much we could lay our hands on, required little encouragement.
Professor Pinkes always wore a pristine white lab coat, a white dress shirt, tie, flannels, and dress shoes—impeccable. A man of great ambiance, but of slight stature, with a pink facial complexion—hence the name. Our lecture halls consisted of amphitheaters, which seated about four hundred, with a gradient toward the front, where a mounted desk and lectern were, and behind it, vast green boards with a wide roll-down projector screen.
He walked in on the very first day, stood at the front, glanced us over and introduced himself. For a moment I wondered what all the hype about him was—he seemed docile, well-kept and not lethal at all. I would soon learn, looks could be misleading. Our class consisted of about two hundred students. He had a name list in his hand and expected us to stand briefly when he called our name. Many of my co-students rolled their eyes at this middle-school-style request.
Hands clasped behind his back, he would pace up and down behind the front desk, when he lectured. From time to time, he would pause, glance at the auditorium filled with students, and continue. He often wrote on the green board—quite legible for a physician, I thought.
We had a physiology textbook, but just to make certain, most of us took meticulous notes; we believed anything, any information we could obtain to prevent us from spending another year with this formidable man, would not be time wasted.
Our initial reverence of the professor waned over the first ten days, as we realized it was all a storm in a teacup—that our fears were unfounded—that the senior students had intentionally misled us; this man was totally harmless.
His only issue it seemed, was his nicotine addiction, which he satisfied throughout the day. (Yes, it was a full day of lecturing about the intricacies of the homeostatic processes of the human body.) He would slip out at the top, at the back, to the fire escape area where he took his smoke breaks, outside. Our breaks lasted as long as it took him to smoke two cigarettes, and he was not one to be rushed. It was also deemed wise not to bug him with any questions during those times.
Reality caught up with us by the end of week two. He glanced the room over one morning, a few seconds longer than usual, hands clasped behind the back, then asked matter of fact, “Where is Miss Moffat, Mr. Van Rooy, and Mr. Van den Bergh?”
We did a quick look around for ourselves, to discover those were indeed the colleagues who were unwise enough not to attend the day’s lectures. He had memorized our faces on that first day it seemed. In order to verify our suspicion about his mental abilities, we changed from our regular seats, every single day there after.
Three days later he performed his informal roll-call again. We had all changed our original seating arrangements. “Where is Mr. Van den Bergh, Mr. Louw, and Miss du Plessis?” Those were the students absent from class, that day. He could tell, without consulting his name-list or photo ID list, only by looking at the group of two hundred, who sat at random places, for five, six seconds. Perhaps the seniors did not mislead us. He had a sixth-sense—a superpower.
Not even the brave missed a class after that discovery—only the foolish.
The whole-day physiology class consisted of lectures in the morning and histology lab in the afternoon. The histology laboratory consisted of long rows of raised desks and high stools, each spot about three feet apart, with its own fancy microscope. The lay-out of the room enabled him to, not to stand far away from us, safely at the front of an auditorium, but he could now pace between us, stand immediately next to, or behind us.
From time to time, he would halt behind a chosen student, as he did the one day. We were studying the hematopoietic system and were looking at slides of peripheral blood smears. It was wiser to keep one’s eyes glued to the eyepieces of the microscope, instead of glancing around, risking eye contact with the professor and have him ask you a question. It was one thing listening to his lecture in the auditorium, and something entirely different to see what he wanted you to see, being separated from the man by two feet. I could hear him breathe behind my back.
“Do you see the neutrophil, Mr. Botha?”
“Yes, Professor.” The hair in my neck came to attention.
“How is it different from the red cells?”
“Well … it’s larger, professor. It has a granular appearance and has a multi-lobed nucleus?” I could feel the perspiration trickle down my back.
He didn’t move and remained behind my chair. “How many lobes, Mr. Botha?”
“Three … professor?”
“No. Look again. There are four.”
I looked again. I could still only see three. I nodded my head, without looking at him. He moved on and I could exhale.
That year turned out to contain more than only gore and intimidation; we studied hard and excelled for the most part, and survived, grateful to be promoted. Our separation-anxiety from the Pink-man, lasting only brief seconds.
We carried with us the realization that Anatomy had an impartible aroma-side to it. Physiology, on the other hand, had the psychology of reverence interwoven deep into its inner core. Above all, we had irrefutable proof—nicotine dependency, sometimes did not diminish the possession of special superpowers.