2022-12-03

Ah yes, the appendix

How odd to see this float through my inbox —

Quotation of the Day for April 4, 2008

“Its major importance would appear to be financial support of the surgical profession.”

– Alfred Sherwood Romer and Thomas S. Parsons, explaining the role of the human appendix, in The Vertebrate Body.

I remember doing a double-take on reading that sentence in that book, which is a formidable and otherwise utterly humour-free textbook. Thomas Parsons was a professor of mine, and a very good one, and in the vertebrate anatomy class in which we used that book he admitted to adding that sentence during the book’s revision.

As a professor he was old-school enough to wear a shirt and tie, but modern enough to wear his Zoology sweatshirt overtop and to get up on the lab counter to demonstrate the difference between reptilian hips and bird hips.

He taught me how to do excellent dissections with a blunt probe and an absolute minimum of scalpel, leading me to mutter disapprovingly when I later came across human bodies that had been dissected by scalpel-happy med students with no sense of subtlety.

He set insanely difficult bell-ringer exams, with specimens cut on the diagonal and all kinds of things where you’d waste half of your ninety seconds wondering what the heck the animal was, never mind identifying the bit of it with the pin in. His essay questions weren’t any easier. But then he’d scale up the marks so it was still possible to get a decent mark after all.

He had four season’s tickets to the opera and as his wife didn’t like opera he would take students. Not by invitation — by open call in class, first come first served. A brave thing, taking science geeks to the opera.

He was, in short, the sort of professor for whom you work hard not for yourself but because you don’t want to disappoint him.

He retired the same year I graduated and moved back to New Jersey to do some birding. I see he’s still doing that. We exchanged a few notes around the time I was applying to grad school. I’m sorry I didn’t keep up the correspondence, but it seemed he was settling very happily into retirement.