George entered Harvard College, as expected, in the fall of 1904. He lived at what was then called “The Gold Coast,” a privately owned group of residences that was more luxurious and expensive than the residence provided by Harvard College. These Gold Coast houses were later acquired by Harvard and became Adams House.
In those days, students at Harvard followed the elective system. In this system, students mostly selected their own course of study. The elective system, pioneered by Harvard’s President Charles William Eliot in 1865, was a break from the system of the 1800’s where every student at a university progressed through the same set of courses. George, with help from his father and uncle, selected courses in Government, History, English, Zoology, Botany, Economics, and Chemistry. They did not have majors in those days, but George had the greatest concentration of courses in Chemistry. He took chemistry courses every year, and his education included courses in analytical chemistry, organic chemistry, and a biochemistry course, called animal chemistry.
In that era, students didn’t strive for perfect grades. As his cousin and classmate put it, “In the college of our time scholarship did not command respect. On the contrary, if a man received all A’s and B’s in his courses, it was assumed that there was something a little queer about him.” Perhaps because of this attitude, even his closest family and friends were unaware of his excellent academic record at Harvard College.
In his final year at Harvard College, he often talked about enrolling in Harvard Medical School. At the time, the only requirements for entrance to the Medical School were an AB degree and passing grades in certain chemistry and physics courses. The grades received in the courses were irrelevant, as long as it was passing. No application process existed, because more spots were available than there were applicants. He didn’t have to make a decision about his future until the fall, so he didn’t.
He spent the summer of 1908 travelling with a few fellow graduates around Europe. He visited all the main sites: the Louvre in Paris, Venice and Milan, Berlin, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. In letters he wrote that summer, he expressed doubt about his future. He was advised by his father that medical school was the route he should take. However, he had two concerns. First, he was not interested in “being a freshman all over again and another four years of exams.” The second concern was his health. He often suffered from indigestion and stomach ailments, and was generally viewed as weak and frail by his father and friends.
George finally decided to attend medical school the weekend before the fall classes began. He entered with a class of sixty-five men (they were all men, women were not allowed at Harvard Medical School in those days). One of his fellow classmates was a cousin, Francis Rackemann.
Medical education was in a transition at the time. Fifty years before, most physicians were educated in small for-profit medical schools owned and each run by a handful of “professors”. The curriculum consisted of about eight months of classes that mostly consisted of lectures. Students did not see patients, and laboratories were virtually non-existent, because they cut into profit margins. The only entrance requirement was that the tuition be paid. Once the tuition was paid, students were guaranteed to graduate. [ludmerer history of medical educations]
Reform at Harvard Medical School started with the class that entered in 1905. New, rigorous, entrance requirements mandated that entering students had already obtained a 4 year bachelor’s degree and evidence that the applicant had a good knowledge of chemistry and physics. The training program took four years, with a battery of exams that had to be passed after the third year. These more rigorous requirements dissuaded students from entering Harvard Medical School, leaving it at below capacity.