A Late Degree: The Importance of Symbolism

Alumnus Michael Gordon may have graduated from St Andrews in 1966, but nothing pleased him more than finally receiving his “degree” from the University this year. You can read his story, in his own words, below.

*The beautiful decorative Latin Degree Certificates as featured in this blog post are available for purchase from the University. 


imgresOver the years I have had the same conversation many times. Visitors to my office often look at the wall of degrees and diplomas that many physicians use to adorn their walls and ask, “where is your medical degree—from where did you graduate?” or some iteration of that question.  As a physician living and practicing in Toronto, at a University of Toronto affiliated health science centre, there is often an assumption that I would be if not a University of Toronto graduate, then at least an alumnus of another Canadian medical school. Those that are good at discerning accents may realize that I must be American so might question if I graduated from an American medical school and like many of my age group came to Canada during the 1960s or 1970s at the time of the Vietnam War.

When I tell them that I am a graduate of the University of St Andrews in Scotland there is often a look of puzzlement on their faces, although some are able to connect some dots—such as St Andrews is the birthplace of golf which is very popular in Ontario, and with the surname of Gordon, I probably studied in Scotland because of a Scottish heritage. But still, they often scan my wall for a medical degree which usually stands out and on most such walls, takes centre-stage.

I often tell them the greatly abridged version of the story of my Jewish-Lithuanian heritage and the taking by my Jewish forbears of generations ago of the name Gordon in honour of General Patrick Leopold Gordon, one of the most successful Scottish mercenary officers hired and then befriended by the Czar of Russia’s Peter the Great at the end of the 17th century.

FullSizeRenderWith that historical understanding they usually then say, “so where is your degree?” At this point I show them the 8×10 plain paper with my typewriter typed degree, dated 19 July 1966, in a plain black frame. They usually respond, “That’s a medical degree?” Some who have a humorous edge to them may follow with, “Is that all they could provide from Scotland, part of their reputation for being very careful with money”.

I then go on to tell them how at the time of my graduation in 1966 the class was informed that the scribe who did the degrees, with great care, died and therefore we would be getting a temporary degree, the one hanging on my wall, to be followed with a proper degree. A year later after I had temporarily returned to the United States, a letter came to inform me that a decision had been made to not replace the degree we had received with any other document acknowledging our graduation from the eminent University of St Andrews faculty of Medicine—the first such faculty in Scotland and the second in the United Kingdom. Nothing to do, it has hung on my various office walls over the years, by this time surrounded by fairly ornate degrees and diplomas attesting to post-graduate training posts and Royal College certifications from Canada and even my University of Edinburgh fellowship that I received in 2007.

I was recently invited to give a lecture at the University of Dundee which, at the time of my graduation, was the clinical half of the Medical School of the University of St Andrews — a separation occurred shortly after but my 1966 degree is from St Andrews. Over the years I have developed a special professional and personal association with the Geriatric Department at the University of Dundee and have participated in numerous academic programmes on both sides of the Atlantic as part of this deep and much appreciated association. On the other hand I have maintained my ties with the University of St Andrews and have attended all of our class reunions. On one such reunion we were hosted by the School of Medicine and saw the impressive, newly opened medical building.

In May of 2015 I travelled to Scotland having been invited to give the inaugural Miriam Friedman lecture in Dundee. On the way from Edinburgh where I had been staying with a classmate and his family for a few days, I was hosted at the medical school in St Andrews for a few hours, to apprise me of the advances in the innovative educational programmes being implemented in the curriculum. After a lovely visit, my host Robert Fleming, the University’s Director of Development, asked me if there was anything he on behalf of the University could do for me in acknowledgement of my continued interest and support of St Andrews. I told him the story of my absent Degree which I find almost humorous this many years after graduation. He said emphatically, “I will send you your proper degree”. In June of 2015 a rolled up parcel arrived and in it was a most beautiful degree.

IMG_2732My youngest son when he was shown the degree and heard the story, took the picture and sent it via Instagram with the short version of the story to his friends, one of whom not quite understanding the story asked if I was not a bit old to just graduate from medical school!

The degree has brought me great joy, not just because it is so exquisite in appearance but because of it symbolism and place in the narrative my wonderful years studying medicine in Scotland, my convoluted Jewish-Scottish heritage and story and my ongoing connections to what is at present a duet of institutions—Dundee where I spent all of my studying years and St Andrews which at the time was the mother ship and from where my degree was issued.

With that degree is all the history behind that act of bestowing upon me the privilege of being a graduate physician, a member of that wonderful tradition of medical practitioners with St Andrews as one of the original sources of its development as a recognized profession.imgres

Written & submitted by Michael Gordon, MB ChB 1966


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