The education of a pathologist

The commitment of one contributes to the education of another—in more ways than one.

In the fall of 1946, I was 18 and ready for college. My father’s income was modest, and I looked for a place where the tuition would be low and the education would be good. My search ended when I enrolled in Arkansas State Teachers College (ASTC). The college was established primarily to train teachers, but it offered general courses in business, pre-law, and pre-medicine. I chose pre-med.

The crucial year

My freshman year was routine. Then came 1947, a year that would change my life forever. That fall, a young high school graduate from the oil fields of South Arkansas turned up at ASTC. Early in the school year, Mary Lou Johnson impressed me as pretty, quiet, dignified, and warm. But I did not have the courage to ask for a date until the following spring, just before the summer break. I asked her to go to a movie with me.

The 1940s were part of the so called “golden era” of Hollywood. Movies had language and scenes acceptable to family values. At ASTC, they provided an alternative to uninhibited parties and dances and often were really educational. So I was surprised when Mary Lou declined my request. She said she did not go to movies as a matter of moral principles. Her reply was gentle, kind—and stunning! Here I stood in the middle of a post-war social revolution, facing a young lady who refused to be a part of the usual campus social scene and stood alone. Her words seemed strange, but strong.

So, we did the only other thing going in town that week. We went to the mid-week prayer meeting at the First Baptist Church!

My education begins

During that summer, I thought a lot about Mary Lou. One day I received a letter from her explaining more about herself. She said she was a “Seventh-day Adventist.” A “Seventh-day Adventist”? What in the world was that? I had a faint memory of my grandmother telling of a “Seventh-day Adventist” farmer down the road who always showed respect for a funeral procession by stopping his plow and mules in the cotton field, removing his hat, and bowing his head until the procession had passed. Well, that’s pretty nice.

Then I went to the encyclopedia and read about a people predicting the return of Jesus Christ, leaving farms, waiting in white robes. Not too good.

I asked the pastor of our interdenominational church what he knew about “Seventh-day Adventists.” He said the only thing he knew was that they were very active in the mission fields. Not too bad.

When the 1948 fall session opened at ASTC, Mary Lou and I renewed our friendship. My education continued in pre-med—and Seventh-day Adventists. Not attending movies was a blessing to my strained budget. Our dates consisted mostly of riding the city bus on the loop around town and back to the campus. Cost? Ten cents each. We were among the bus company’s “frequent travelers” that year.

Taking the Bible seriously

My next lesson came when I asked Mary Lou out on a Friday evening. I knew she went to church on Saturday for some misguided reason, so Friday should be okay, shouldn’t it? Well, Mary Lou gave me a study as to how God kept time—from sunset to sunset. You see, my problem was that I was a typical Christian who believed the Bible in general. I just didn’t know what it said!

And then there was the matter of eating, of all things! Once we attended a local church function for college students at which the main bill of fare was delicious ham sandwiches. Mary Lou chose salad. She said she did not eat pork or other unclean meat. Had she never awakened in the morning to the aroma of coffee percolating in the pot and bacon frying in the pan? Well, it was back to the Bible again!

During the 1948-1949 school year, our friendship grew closer, and my education continued. Although I did not apply any of her “peculiar” principles to my own life, I began to understand the reasons for her actions, and my appreciation of her character and qualities took deep roots in my own psyche.

In 1949 our ways parted. In the fall, I entered the University of Arkansas School of Medicine at Little Rock, 30 miles away from ASTC, where Mary Lou remained. The next two years were difficult ones, and a real test of our relationship. In spite of the distance and the study load, I hitchhiked to ASTC during weekends.

By then my personal finances had reached a crisis. I was able to enter the first year of medical school because my aunt loaned me $480, her life savings. But now it was fall 1950, and my mother had only one sister to come to my aid! Help came from another source, however. I was offered a position as student assistant in the anatomy laboratory. But the work load slowed down my class load, and I had to take an extra year to complete my medical studies.

A risk and a partnership

In the spring of 1951, Mary Lou graduated with a B.A. degree in home economics. Then she did the only thing I have ever seen her do contrary to her Seventh-day Adventist standards. She married me—a non-Adventist. This was risky, and I wouldn’t recommend it to any young Seventh-day Adventist today.

I continued my second year as a student assistant in the anatomy laboratory. Mary Lou obtained a job as a first-grade teacher in the county school system. My lab job ended in the spring of 1952, and I entered my junior year as a full-time student. Mary Lou’s income put me through the rest of medical school.

I received my M.D. degree in June, 1954, and three months later our first child (a son) was born. Mary Lou stopped working and stayed home to care for the baby. We figured we could survive with my intern’s income of $150 per month. In addition, Mary Lou’s father loaned us $1,000, a large sum in those days, to help us through the year.

Although I possessed an M.D. degree, I still had many years of training and experience ahead before I could begin practice as a pathologist. These were not easy years for Mary Lou. Our family increased to three sons and a daughter. I was amazed with Mary Lou’s faithfulness in observing the Sabbath from even to even; taking the children all spit and polished on time to Sabbath School every week; regularly paying her little tithe; keeping the house clean and neat, with drawers full of clean, orderly clothes, and our table laid out with hot, wholesome, and delicious meals.

A vegetarian by evidence

Oh, yes, the meals. In the early years of medical school, I learned in my biochemistry and nutrition classes what medical science considered to be the best foods to promote good health. What I learned was identical to the concepts advocated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church under the guidance of a woman with a third-grade formal education.

As my training in pathology entered the 1960s, great advances were made in preventive medicine. The relationship of animal fat to hardening of the arteries was finally established. The U.S. Government took the official position that the use of tobacco was injurious to health. Overwhelming statistics were published, indicting alcohol as the greatest drug problem in our society. I was performing autopsies and seeing for myself the truths of these great health principles of medical science—and the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Eventually my experiences in the autopsy room led me to become a vegetarian.

The final step

But the greatest influence on my life has always been Mary Lou. In good times, bad times, difficult times, she has stood by me—a loyal and faithful wife, a loving mother to my children, and my best friend. All along she was patient, kind, loving—a true representative of Christ in the home. This is what really led me to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

So in 1962 I decided it was time to close the circle of faith in our home. The spring of that year, I followed Jesus into the baptismal waters and joined the fellowship of His commandment-keeping people. God has continued to bless our home and my professional life. For almost 30 years I have had the opportunity to serve Him at a Seventh-day Adventist medical center in the field of my specialty. God is faithful.

J. D. Mashburn (M.D., University of Arkansas) is chairman of the Department of Pathology at Washington Adventist Hospital and an elder at the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church. His address: 7600 Carroll Avenue; Takoma Park, MD 20912; U.S.A.