Jan 18, 2016

Engineering or Medicine?

Family lore tells that Benito Prats Respall wasn’t quite sure whether he wanted to be an engineer or a doctor when he set off to enroll at the University of Havana in 1938.

A Homemade Crystal Radio
As a kid, he loved to tinker and build gadgets. He tells of the radio he built when he was 10 (in 1928) after saving pennies to send off for a germanium diode.  He had to craft the variable capacitor from cardboard and tin foil, and make the coil by shellacking thin copper wire and carefully winding it into a coil around a paper tube. The final task was to create a piezoelectric earpiece. The result was a radio that did not require batteries, and he spent hours at night listening to A.M. and international short-wave stations that were just coming on the air at the dawn of the radio age.

Plaza Cannon
Then there’s the story of his success with chemicals, when he managed to create gunpowder and fire off a charge of confetti from the ceremonial cannon in the plaza near his house in the middle of the night. The city was jittery already; anti-government insurgents had been setting off bombs in the city around that time. Everyone, it seemed to him, rushed out to the street in their nightclothes to find out what the explosion was about, and then the police arrived. But the prank was quickly forgotten and never traced back to him.

His mother Eduvigis Respall had no doubt that her son was going to go to university and come out a professional. She was married to a shopkeeper, her late father had been a shopkeeper, and she knew that shopkeeping was not what she wanted for her son.  Camaguey was growing by leaps and bounds and filling with professionals. She saw her children climbing the class ladder into the professional class and started saving for university the day Benito was born. She also made sure her two children studied hard. Higher education was free, but you needed to provide references from your teachers and pass the entrance exam to get in. The savings was to make sure there was money for things like room, board, books and supplies.

Benito did well in school. He went to the Escuelas Pias Catholic school across the street from the his father’s shop, graduating in 7 years instead of the usual 8, and then enrolled at the newly opened Camaguey Institute of Secondary Education, which awarded him the equivalent of a Bachelors Degree in Sciences and Letters just after his 18th birthday in 1932. This was followed by the university's entrance exam (administered locally) and a few year's wait for entry to the university.

A school bus of the era
Finally the time came to head for Havana to enroll. Eduvigis had arranged for free room and board in exchange for work at the Franciscan school in Havana. Benito would drive and maintain the school’s bus for the elementary school and live and eat with the Franciscans while we went to school at the University.

So here is where family lore says that Benito got to Havana and went off to the University with his paperwork to enroll. The line for the engineering school was long and snaked outside the building in the hot sun, while the one for the medical school was short by comparison. So he made up his mind right then and there and matriculated at the medical school instead.  He himself repeated this story periodically.

But the fact of the matter is that his uncle Porfirio Respall, Eduvigis’ brother, had made the jump to the professional class a generation earlier and Benito looked up to him.  He was a highly respected surgeon in Cuba and in Mexico City, where he spent some time as the chief surgeon to the Mexican Army. An excellent surgeon, he would say, who pioneered some revolutionary surgical techniques in the 1920s.

The Steps at the University of Havana
So, you see, Benito wanted to be a doctor long before he climbed the ceremonial steps up to the university campus for the first time. I asked him during one of my Monday visits at the assisted living center in Rockville and he told me so himself.

His 1944 graduating class at the medical school called themselves “the octopi” (los pulpos). He competed for and won an internship at the University Hospital for the 1943-44 school year. He graduated with honors, and with two minors, one in obstetrics and another in biochemistry and laboratory techniques. And after graduation and continuing education in New Orleans and Philadelphia, in the 1940s he opened a gastroenterology practice in Camaguey. But his love of engineering, gadgets, and electronics never wavered. He had the first fluoroscope and a little later the first x-ray machine in private practice in Camaguey.

A Heathkit Radio, Neatly Built
And, of course, he had a Fisher component hi-fi system for his living room with separate woofer and tweeter, and got a Japanese transistor radio as soon as they became available in the 1950s. He liked to use the earpiece that came with it.  And in Maryland, guess what was a short drive from Bethesda, on Nicholson Lane in Rockville?  A Heathkit store, where he bought (among other things) an FM radio kit that he soldered together in a couple of evenings.
Dr. Benito H. Prats, with stethoscope, at University Hospital in Havana

The doctor's wife, Mariana Martínez, in a corner of the living room
with their first four children in their Cuban winter coats.
The doctor is behind the lens with his back to the patio doors.
Notice the hi-fi music system under the stairs
and a speaker built into the wall behind them. The turntable
is in the teak box to the right of the Fisher preamp.
Up two steps is the dining room behind them. The door
goes to the kitchen. Photo circa 1956.