What with the hugging and the kissing and the jostling to create a clear view for the cameras, it looked like an oversized family get-together, which is just what many guests at last night's party in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Howard University Surgical Residency Program said it was.
"You have to understand, back in the '30s there were very few programs that accepted blacks," said LaSalle Leffall Jr., chairman of the department of surgery at Howard. "So we started out with an esprit de corps, as a family, and it's a family that's lasted for 50 years."
So graduates from the '30s on of the postgraduate surgery program made the trip to Washington.
"In 1950, two-thirds of the certified black surgeons in the country had been trained at Howard," said Dr. Charles Watts, vice president and medical director of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. and a Howard trustee, who completed the surgery residency in 1949 under the direction of then-department head Dr. Charles Drew.
"He wanted black doctors to go out and establish themselves around the country," Watts said of Drew. "He succeeded far beyond his dream. We can point them out across the country -- Norfolk, Newport News, -- this goes to California and back again. It was a trailblazing effort that really succeeded."
Today, Dr. Claude Organ, a professor of surgery at the University of Oklahoma and the first black chairman of the American Board of Surgery, will give the annual Drew-Syphax Lecture, named after Charles Drew and his successor as department head Dr. Burke Syphax (whom a press release said has "often been called a 'Master of the Abdomen.' ") Syphax was the second member of the residency program.
"Howard kept the hopes and aspirations of young blacks alive," Organ said. "There's no doubt times are better, and there are very few programs that are not accessible to blacks today. But we have a lot of people today who think the race problem has been solved. They're acting like we're living in a complete society."
The skeptical smile on Organ's face conveyed quite clearly what he felt about that opinion.
Dr. Roy Schneider, commissioner of health for the Virgin Islands, said "We have folks in Africa, we have some in Egypt, we have them all around the world. Syphax and LaSalle, they instilled in us the same spirit of service, work over one's self, to excel not only for a small area but in the greatest area you can. I was advised by Dr. Leffall to go home to the Virgin Islands and do what I could for my people."
Schneider is now running for governor of the Virgin Islands.
As at any reunion, there were the familiar paeans to those things lost in the passage of time.
"Many of these kids don't know what some of the older people had to go through to get the training they take for granted now," said Dr. Jack White, former director of the Howard Cancer Center who finished his Howard residency in 1949. "I don't think they're as aware as they ought to be. Things were a lot different then. It took some doing on many people's parts to get it where surgical training is available many places in the country."
The 200 guests were packed into a soaring hall in the Rayburn House Office Building, where the cries of "You look great" ricocheted off marble walls. Some of those attending were not doctors. Former head of the Urban League Vernon Jordan was there, as was D.C. council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, daughter of Charles Drew. And, much to the delight of several guests eager to clutch her hand, Eppie Lederer/Ann Landers showed up, too.
"LaSalle invited me and I simply had to come through for LaSalle," she said.
Landers met Leffall when Jimmy Carter appointed both to the board of the National Cancer Institute, and the Howard cancer specialist is now "one of my primary consultants on cancer surgery," Landers said.
To help guide advice-seekers, Landers keeps a file of the names of 500 doctors in "every field" from around the United States.
"I've made it my business to know who the doctors are," she said. "I don't like to recommend one, so I give them a choice of three."
Then it was off to meet several hundred doctors -- all in the line of business.