U celebrates 75 years

by Melanie Evans

As a medical technician at St. Joseph’s Hospital in the 1950s, Sister Roland Davey sterilized and sharpened her own needles.
Davey recalls mixing chemical solutions without gloves or protective gear. She clearly remembers, more than 40 years later, a time when assessing a cholesterol count took two days of lab tests — not 20 minutes at the corner drug store.
Passionate about science, Davey left her hometown of Eveleth, Minn., for the University’s Division of Medical Technology program in 1945. Fifty years after graduation, Davey returned to the University’s campus Monday to share her life experiences as a medical technician at her alma mater’s 75th anniversary celebration.
The oldest of its kind in the nation, the program began training medical technicians to perform and analyze medical lab tests in 1923.
Peels of laughter rose from the crowd of about 80 as alumni reminisced throughout the morning. Bobbing heads nodded in affirmation to Davey’s repeated question, “Do you remember?”
From an era when medicine lacked the precision of computer technology, Davey and members of her class swapped stories and compared notes with more recent alumni.
Davey and her classmates’ graduations predate penicillin, antibiotics and most of the computers used in modern molecular and cellular diagnostic tests.
“Everything was manual,” Davey said. “You did everything by hand, which was very slow and tedious.”
“There is just no way that you could do the volume that they do now,” she added. “Everything is done by instrument now.”
Few safety standards existed, either, Davey said. Many of the graduates recall working exposed to Mercury, using their mouths to create suction in hoses when extracting fluids and handling hazardous material without gloves or other protective clothing.
Technology and breakthroughs in the fields of biology and genetics have altered the role of a medical technician, said Karen Karni, the division’s director.
Once trained to perform and analyze lab tests run in hospitals, the field’s students have branched out to include high technology clinical experiments in Minnesota’s blood banks and hospitals.
Graduates are working for large research and development companies interested in biomedical devices and therapies, Karni said.
“It’s much less a hands-on profession; now it’s more sophisticated analysis,” she said.
Blood tests that once screened only for syphilis now include a battery of examinations to screen for a range of diseases and genetic markers, Karni said.
Time has altered the gender gap that once existed in the program as well. Traditionally a female-dominated program, one-third of the program’s current students are male. Medical technology was one of a handful of professions available for women interested in the natural sciences, said Karni, who is the program’s seventh female director.
“At that time, medical schools did not encourage women,” said Helen Hallgren, associate professor in the Division of Medical Technology.
The change is remarkable, Davey said. Despite her 1996 retirement, she continues to give lectures to health professionals about the field.
“In 50 years we have come — it’s just unbelievable how far — in one person’s lifetime, in my lifetime,” Davey said.