By Sarah Alger
Massachusetts General Hospital’s first building, designed by renowned architect Charles Bulfinch and opened in 1821, is an elegant granite edifice. Leading from the lawn up to its Ionian-columned second floor are two sets of stone steps. The top step of each has been known for decades as the Intern’s Step.
Like an April Fool’s joke that keeps giving all year, this top step is, on one set, half an inch higher than the rest, and on the other, a full one and a half inches higher. As Peter G. Barrett, MD, explains in Voices of the Massachusetts General Hospital 1950-2000: Wit, Wisdom and Untold Tales: “In the 1960s, anxious interns with clean, pressed, white uniforms hurried up the stairs each week on their way to teaching conferences. Early in the academic year, some of them would misjudge the top step and trip, scattering charts, papers and stethoscopes everywhere. All occurred within the view and the sound of the house staff and faculty who were gathered inside the nearby conference room.”
Did Bulfinch design this step on purpose for future humiliation and hilarity? Unlikely, says Jeffrey Mifflin, the MGH’s archivist. “My speculation is that there was some miscalculation at the foundation level during construction and that the extra-high final steps had to be put in place to compensate,” he told me. “Another possibility (again, speculative) is that the main part of the Bulfinch Building is resting on a foundation that sits on a spot that was excavated down to bedrock, while the staircase is on less solid footing, perhaps causing it to sink an inch and a half, requiring compensatory replacement steps to be added.” We’ll never know for sure.
The top few inches of these offending steps are now painted red. Whether anyone pays the red any mind, I don’t know, but I haven’t seen anyone trip on the step in my past two and a half years here, either (me included, thank goodness).