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School of Medicine and Health Sciences

The George Washington University opened in 1821 as Columbian College, when Washington had only nine physicians and two apothecaries. The time was ripe for change. Four years after its founding, the college added a medical department to its curriculum. This, the eleventh medical department in the nation and the first in the capital, would evolve into the internationally recognized medical school, hospital, and ambulatory care facility--The George Washington University Medical Center.

Medical School 1824

The founding of a medical school inevitably comes with a hefty price tag, yet the GW medical department was initially funded entirely by its faculty. Six of these professionals financed the building of the first facility in downtown Washington, on 10th and E Streets near Ford's Theater.

The medical department opened with a first rate faculty, among them Thomas Sewall, professor of anatomy and a Harvard graduate; and James Staughton, professor of surgery and son of Columbia College president, William Staughton. Its faculty soon expanded to include Alexander P. McWilliams, Thomas Henderson, Nicholas Williams Worthington, and Frederick May. GW offered a full curriculum, which included anatomy, physiology, surgery, "theory and practice of physic," meteria medica, chemistry, and obstetrics.

Over the next fifteen years, the department continued to grow, and by the early 1840s it needed more space. In 1842 Congress appropriated money to improve a building at Judiciary Square for use as an insane asylum. But after the building was renovated with imminent occupancy, a great public outcry among local residents caused Congress to abandon the project. GW saw its opportunity and acted. The unused asylum was ideal for an infirmary and Congress granted GW use of the building. In 1844, the Washington Infirmary began operation as the first general hospital in the Nation's Capital and one of the earliest teaching hospitals.

Then as now, care of the indigent was an important service at GW. Supported in part by the federal government, which appropriated between two and six thousand dollars a year for the purpose, GW treated "transient sick paupers" besides paying customers.

In 1847 the medical department of Columbian College became the National Medical College. In the early 1850s, it was in the forefront of medical education in the nation. The Washington Infirmary was enlarged in 1853, in response to growing need. The improved facility allowed the faculty to include clinical studies formally in the curriculum. Since few schools taught clinical medicine before the early twentieth century, this addition was remarkable in its foresight.

The following years were prosperous ones for the Washington Infirmary, but with the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861, the school entered a difficult era. Both medical students and faculty joined forces in the North and the South, though their numbers were significantly higher among the Confederate ranks. Beginning a long tradition of GW service to presidents, Dr. A.Y.P. Garnett left Washington to become Jefferson Davis's personal physician, while Dr. Robert King Stone remained to serve Abraham Lincoln.

After the war began, the government reclaimed the Infirmary for use as a military hospital, and less than seven months later the building was destroyed by fire. The Washington Star of November 4, 1861, headlined the disaster with "The Burning of the E Street Infirmary Terrible and Thrilling Incidents--Removal of More than One Hundred Patients." So ended GW's first established teaching hospital.

Despite the chaos of the war, the medical college regrouped and in 1863 reopened in the Constitution Office on E Street between 12th and 13th Streets, NW. From 1865 to 1867 it shared space in the Columbia College Law Building on 5th Street between D and E Streets, NW. The building also served as a church on Sundays.

The GW hospital and medical school moved to 1335 H Street in 1868. The new building, which had previously housed the Army Medical Museum's specimens, was donated by W.W. Corcoran, philanthropist and president of GW's Board of Trustees from 1869 to 1888. The Evening Express of August 24, 1868, described Corcoran's gift as a place for students to "practice application of bandages and surgical appliances, to use the microscope, and to practice on the manikin." In March of 1873, Columbian College became Columbia University and seven years later, GW's medical school instituted a three-year curriculum with two required sessions of dissecting and two of clinical instruction.

In 1881 the Board of Trustees set a revolutionary policy by allowing women to be admitted on a trial basis, and the first woman students enrolled in 1884--one in the School of Medicine and several in the newly established Corcoran Scientific School. For the next few decades, GW was one of the few schools in the country to allow female medical students. In 1884 the University also moved to 15th and H Streets, NW. The medical school building was renovated in 1887, and a new building constructed in 1902. By 1931, the medical school had added a brick annex to the H Street building to house laboratory facilities.

In 1894, the medical school became a four-year school. Four years later the University's preparatory school, closed in 1897, was designated as part of the University Hospital. The new hospital, located just west of the medical school, housed the dispensary, the operating suite, and a new section of private rooms and wards. Four years after the turn of the century, the Columbian University Medical School and Hospital were rededicated as The George Washington University Medical School and Hospital. Its faculty boasted many of the nation's most prominent doctors: Major Walter Reed, who identified the mosquito as the carrier of yellow fever; his associate, Dr. James Carroll; Dr. Theobald Smith, whose pioneering research identifying germs as the cause of diseases changed the course of medicine; Dr. Frederick Russell, who introduced typhoid vaccine into the Army; and Dr. A.F.A. King, whose Manual of Obstetrics became the standard then.

Under the leadership of William C. Borden, who served as Dean from 1909 to 1930, the medical school continued to produce outstanding young doctors. They proved GW's excellence repeatedly by performing outstandingly before state examining boards. In 1917 the admissions requirements were increased to one year of college work with an emphasis in science.

In 1928 the Department of Medicine became the School of Medicine, School of Nursing, and the University Hospital. In 1931 Dr. Baldwin McKinley was appointed Professor of Bacteriology and Dean of the Medical School. Dr. McKinley's keen interest in scientific research paved the way for the erection of a four-story laboratory behind the Medical School. With this new facility, GW faculty brought national attention to the medical school through their research efforts.

With the encouragement of former Dean Borden, Dr. Claude Moore became the chief of radiology and created one of the most modern radiology units of the early 1930s. Also of note was Dr. Vincent deVigneaud, who did most of his important research while a professor of biochemistry at the medical school, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1955. During World War II, Major General Phillip B. Fleming, a Federal Works administrator, saw in GW a much-needed answer to the shortage in medical facilities in the District of Columbia. Started as a public works project, the hospital was built by the Public Buildings Administration of the Federal Works Agency. When it opened in 1948, it was the most modern hospital in the nation's capital.

After World War II, the GW medical school, aided by a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant, expanded its curriculum to include postgraduate courses for doctors returning to private practice after military service. Dr. Walter A. Bloedorn, then president of the Association of American Medical Colleges and dean of the medical school, praised the hospital for its "outstanding facilities for the practice of its eminent staff and for the conduct of the University's distinguished postgraduate program."

Throughout the decades that followed World War II, the medical school turned out class after class of well- qualified doctors, constantly revising its curriculum to keep pace with medicine's rapid advance. At the same time, the hospital was introducing the latest in medical equipment. In 1956, for example, GW purchased its first artificial kidney--a "Kolff Kidney" with the serial number "4"--used in acute treatments. In 1964, Professor Alvin Parrish (M.D. '45) opened Washington's first non-military dialysis unit--beginning a tradition of progressive renal medicine that continues at GW today. That same year, Dean John Parks and the GW faculty extensively revised the curriculum so that medical students would come into contact with patients earlier in their training. The Commonwealth Fund granted $400,000 to implement these changes-- generosity equaled by the hospital's medical staff, who contributed nearly $500,000.

In 1966, the University dedicated the Eugene Meyer Pavilion, offering greatly increased laboratory, x- ray, research, and clinical treatment facilities. An entire floor of the Meyer Pavilion, devoted to research, houses the six-million-volt linear accelerator, the radioisotope laboratory, operating theaters with overhead observation galleries, and in/out surgical suites for minor and oral surgery.

In 1973, the last component of The George Washington University Medical Center was moved to Washington Circle with the construction of the new home of the medical school, Walter G. Ross Hall and the Himmelfarb Medical Library. All aspects of the Medical Center--hospital, medical school, and research facilities-- were centralized at last. In 1981 the Medical Center's staff made front- page news when President Reagan, shot at close range, was rushed to the GW emergency room. The fine service that saved the president's life was commemorated 10 years later by the establishment of the Ronald Reagan Institute of Emergency Medicine to train emergency system coordinators and pursue basic and clinical research in emergency medicine.

In keeping with its mission to serve the community, the GW Medical Center, with three other area hospitals, founded the Health Care for the Homeless Project in the mid-1980s to provide more accessible and appropriate health care for Washington's homeless. In 1987 the Master of Public Health program was established in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Ten years later--the program became a keystone of the second School in the Medical Center. In 1988, GW dedicated its new Ambulatory Care Center, whose modern clinical offices, surgical suites, cancer center, radiology labs, and pharmacy adjoin the renovated doctors' offices in the Burns Building.

The George Washington University and Universal Health Services, Inc. announced, in 1997, the signing of a joint venture partnership agreement for the ownership and operation of the University Hospital. Also in 1997, the School of Public Health and Health Services, the only one in the nation's capital, was established. The School encompasses the Departments of Environmental and Occupational Health, Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Exercise Science, Global Health, Health Policy, Health Services Management and Leadership, and Prevention and Community Health. Degree offerings from the School include the master of public health, master of health services management and policy, and a Ph.D. in epidemiology - biostatistics. Bachelor and master degrees in exercise science are also offered. The School's Wertlieb Educational Institute for Long Term Care Management has already emerged as a national and international resource for education and interdisciplinary dialogue in long-term care management and finance. In addition to the two Schools and the Hospital, the Medical Center includes The Medical Faculty Associates, the faculty practice of clinicians who teach full-time at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and The George Washington University Health Plan. The Health Plan, which began in the early 1970s, has a network of more than 4000 physicians in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. It is the health maintenance organization for more than 89,000 people.

Today The George Washington University Medical Center, an academic health center, is internationally known for its outstanding medical education, research, and clinical care. In emergency medicine, neuroscience, cancer, cardiology and many other areas, the Medical Center has proven itself a leader.

Perhaps Dr. Sewall, addressing the opening session of the medical department in 1824, said it best, "Who knows but it may be reserved to this school to make some discovery in medicine which shall commence a new era in the science or furnish the world with a remedy for some fatal disease which now eludes the powers of medicine." The Medical Center of George Washington University has already made good on that prediction several times over and the promise for the future is bright, especially with the recent expansion of the Medical Center to become truly an academic health center. GW now has under one center everything to do with medicine and biomedical research, public health and health care policy as well as the management and delivery of health services.

Note: This was first published in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences Alumni Directory.


Locations of the Medical School:

1825-1844: A building at the corner of 10th and E Sts., N.W.

1844-1861: A building in Judiciary Square (Indiana Avenue between 4th and 5th Sts., N.W.). This building had been fitted for an Insane Asylum but was found unsuited for that purpose; Congress therefore granted the Faculty permission to use the building, and was known as the Washington Infirmary. In 1853 the building was remodeled and enlarged and the hospital and infirmary facilities were greatly improved. At the outbreak of the Civil War the government resumed possession of the building, and “the Medical College occupied temporary quarters in different places until 1866.”

1866-1902: 1335 H St., N.W. This land and building were given to the University by W. W Corcoran (additional land given by him in 1887). The original building was enlarged in 1887.

1902-1973: In 1902 the old building at 1335 H St., N.W. was torn down and the Medical Building erected.

1973–Present: Ross Hall complex at 23rd and I Street, N.W.

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