Before 1902, medical education in North America was in disarray and medical students were known more for ignorance, carousing and rowdiness than for compassion or competence. Then along came a society that changed everything.
It’s felt to be the single most important criterion for a successful medical residency application at universities across North America. I am referring to membership in the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society. Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA) celebrates its 109th anniversary this year and yet some medical students and physicians still seem to be unaware of its history and significance. What is AOA and what is its relevance to the medical profession?
The story goes back to 1902 when medical education in North America was in disarray and medical students were known more for ignorance, carousing and rowdiness than for compassion or competence in caring for the sick. Many so-called medical schools were nothing more than diploma mills housed in substandard facilities offering little if any clinical experience to students. Not until 1910 did Abraham Flexner’s milestone report on Canadian and American medical schools bring this sorry situation to public light.
It was in this environment that William Webster Root and five other medical students at Chicago’s College of Physicians and Surgeons founded the first chapter of Alpha Omega Alpha. Rather than being an elitist organization as some modern detractors have claimed, AOA was established to help bring an element of professionalism and skill back to the medical profession of the day, at a time when these characteristics were sadly lacking.
AOA’s stated raison d’etre was “to recognize and perpetuate excellence in the medical profession.” Its motto became “Worthy to serve the suffering.” In Greek the key words of this phrase begin with the letters alpha, omega and alpha, hence the origin of the society’s name. The society has its own key, shaped like the manubrium sterni and engraved with aforementioned Greek letters.
Members are chosen from students, residents, alumni and faculty or membership can be offered on an honourary basis to anyone with distinguished achievements in a field related to medicine. The Dalhousie chapter for example recently made former Nova Scotia premier, Dr. John Hamm an honorary member of our society after he spoke at our annual banquet. Chapters elect student members from the last two years of medical school. This is based not only on academic excellence, but also on characteristics such as leadership and compassion. The number elected may not exceed one-sixth of the students in a given class and each year up to three house staff, two alumni and two faculty members are also added to the chapter’s roster.
The annual banquet at Dalhousie serves to welcome new members of the organization as well as providing a forum for interesting speakers. Past keynote speakers have included astronaut Bob Thirsk and Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Examiner Dr. John Butt, who shared his experiences handling the Swissair flight 111 disaster. Monthly meetings are also held featuring presentations by student and physician members dealing with a wide variety of fascinating topics gleaned from personal experience and research.
As stated in the society’s constitution: “Alpha Omega Alpha is organized for educational purposes exclusively and not for profit, and its aims shall be the promotion of scholarship and research in medical schools, the encouragement of a high standard of character and conduct among medical students and graduates, and the recognition of high attainment in medical science, practice, and related fields.”
To this end, AOA sponsors visiting professorships yearly, as well as providing student research fellowships – open to any student at a university with an active chapter – student essay awards with a top prize of $2000 (US) and student service awards. Alpha Omega Alpha has its own journal, The Pharos, which is published quarterly and features non-technical papers covering topics of historical, philosophic and current interest to physicians. The in-depth film reviews are one of my favorites. Winners of the student essay competition are also featured in Pharos.
At present, AOA has more than a hundred chapters in the United States, Lebanon, Puerto Rico and Canada. Active branches in Canada include Dalhousie University and the University of Alberta, both founded in 1958, and the venerable University of Toronto chapter dating back to 1906. Across the world and a century after its foundation Alpha Omega Alpha continues to foster the humanistic and idealistic aspects of medicine to all members of the profession.
Those wishing more information should go to www.alphaomegaalpha.org
Suite 130, Menlo Park, California 94025
Abraham Flexner. Wikipedia
AOA’s Founders. Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society
This article first appeared in The Medical Post in 2002.