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The Medical School: 150 Years and Counting

Feinberg School of Medicine is in the midst of a year-long celebration of its sesquicentennial.

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April 23, 2009
Video produced by Matt Paolelli
Text by Eileen Norris

The founders of the 150-year-old Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine might be proud to hear that after having gone through various name changes, locations, curriculum and clinical partners, the school has still handily outlived the oldest confirmed record for human longevity, which is 129 years.

After all, their intention was to help people live good, long, healthy lives.

Feinberg is in the midst of a year-long celebration of its sesquicentennial. The school's roots date back to 1859 when seven physicians, including Nathan S. Davis, M.D., left Rush Medical College and signed an agreement with Lind University to form its new medical department.

Rush had required 16 weeks of study a year for two years. Davis (who became dean of the new medical school) and his cohorts wanted to strengthen the curriculum. They got their wish. The new school required 20 weeks of instruction for two years, unheard of in the early days of medical education.

On Oct. 10, 1859, 33 men were in attendance for the first session in the medical department of Lind University, the predecessor of today's Feinberg School. Most of the applicants had a high school education and a few had attended college. In 1859, the medical department had just 11 professors and each taught a separate discipline. Tuition was $121 for two years of courses, plus a $20 graduation fee, with room and board a reasonable $3 a week. A third year of medical school was added in 1868.

By 1892, the curriculum had been enlarged and four years of study were required to receive a medical degree.

The medical school's first clinical partner was Mercy Hospital. In 1870, the medical school built a 500-seat surgical amphitheater to showcase the skills of John Murphy, M.D., whose treatment of appendicitis and intestinal disorders drew students and visitors from all over the world to view his surgical performance. The school's relationship with Mercy ended in 1920.

Lind University became a casualty of the Civil War; however, medical faculty incorporated as Chicago Medical College. It affiliated with Northwestern University in 1870 as the medical department. In 1891 the name was changed to Northwestern University Medical School.

For many years it was the only medical school in America that required three years of instruction, and an optional fourth year. Other firsts: Daniel Hale Williams received his medical degree in 1883 as one of Northwestern's first graduates of African American descent. Dr. Williams founded Provident Hospital, Chicago's first interracial hospital. He successfully sutured the pericardium of a stab wound victim in 1893 and was the first initiate of African American descent to become a member of the American College of Surgeons in 1913. Charles Horace Mayo, founder of the Mayo Clinic, graduated in 1888. In 1889, Carlos Montezuma became the school's first Native American to be awarded an M.D. degree.

Women didn't fare as well initially. An experiment in 1869 allowed three female matriculants, but the men did not like their presence. Women were excluded from entrance the following term. In 1892, the Woman's Medical College affiliated with Northwestern, but it closed in 1902 as enrollment declined and other schools became coeducational. It wasn't until 1926 that women were admitted to Northwestern's medical school.

Northwestern's medical school has had several long-standing affiliations over the years. Besides Mercy Hospital, teaching affiliates included Wesley, Provident, St. Luke's, People's, Michael Reese and Cook County hospitals.

The medical school found a permanent home in 1926 after the University purchased a nine-acre tract of land at Chicago Avenue and Lake Shore Drive for $1.4 million. At the time, the undeveloped property was considered a rough neighborhood, but the building boom had started.

Mrs. Elizabeth J. Ward (widow of mail order magnate Montgomery Ward) gave $3 million to the University for construction of the Montgomery Ward Memorial Building to house the University's medical and dental schools, plus another $1 million as an endowment. In 1926, she gave another gift of $4 million to support clinical teaching. Passavant Memorial opened on the new campus in 1929 and a medical center began to take shape. Abbott Hall was constructed as a 20-story dormitory in 1939 with a gift to the University from Mrs. Clara Abbott. In 1955, the Morton Research Building, named for a gift from Mrs. Margaret Gray Morton in memory of her husband, Joy Morton, was dedicated. The Searle Research Building, named for a gift of the Searle Family, was dedicated in 1965.

In 1946, Northwestern began its affiliation with Children's Memorial Hospital. The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago became affiliated with Northwestern in 1960. Passavant and Wesley hospitals merged in 1972 to form Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

The next decades were marked by more major gifts that greatly expanded facilities for teaching and research.

The Northwestern University Medical Center was renamed the McGaw Medical Center of Northwestern University (1973) in recognition of a gift from Foster G. and Mary McGaw. Foster McGaw was the founder of American Hospital Supply Corporation. The center supervises the graduate medical education (GME) programs and activities of its members.

George Tarry, M.D., an esteemed medical school faculty member for nearly 40 years, and his wife, Edwina, made gifts that include the leadership gift to name and construct the 16-floor Tarry Research and Education Building (1990). The building was first major research investment in a quarter century; it added space for research and education.

The Department of Neurology became the first named department at the medical school -- The Ken and Ruth Davee Department of Neurology and Clinical Neurological Sciences (1999). A gift from The Davee Foundation honors the memory of alumna Ruth Dunbar Davee's late husband Ken, a Chicago philanthropist who died in 1998, and the Davees' longstanding, generous support of Northwestern programs.

Reuben Feinberg, who died in 2002, was instrumental in directing gifts from the Joseph and Bessie Feinberg Foundation to the medical school, and the school was renamed the Feinberg School of Medicine in 2002. Feinberg was a grateful patient who had been hospitalized at Northwestern Memorial Hospital for a heart attack. The Feinberg brothers Bernard, Louis, Samuel and Reuben created the Joseph and Bessie Feinberg Foundation to honor their parents. Over the years, the foundation also has funded and named leading research institutes at the medical school, including the Feinberg Cardiovascular Research Institute and Frances Evelyn Feinberg Clinical Neuroscience Research Institute.

Trustee and philanthropist Ann Lurie made the leadership gift to Campaign Northwestern to name the new Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center (2005) in honor of her late husband, Robert H. Lurie. The center added more than 200,000 net square feet of research space. The Patrick and Shirley Ryan family and Northwestern Memorial Hospital also made leadership gifts. Researchers from the Lurie cancer center and from genetics and molecular medicine, neurosciences, bioengineering and advanced medicine, and infectious diseases conduct research in the building.

The Luries earlier had made a commitment to endow the cancer center. The center was dedicated as the Robert H. Lurie Cancer Center of Northwestern University (1991). This name was modified in 1998, when the National Cancer Institute (NCI) awarded the Cancer Center the highly competitive "comprehensive" designation. Ms. Lurie recently pledged to help Children's Memorial Hospital establish a new center devoted exclusively to the care of children. The gift, the largest in the hospital's 125-year history, will help create the new hospital on the Chicago campus. It will be named Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.

Today, Feinberg occupies all or part of 11 buildings on the Chicago campus and is part of the McGaw Medical Center of Northwestern University. Other McGaw member affiliates are Children's Memorial Hospital; the former Evanston Northwestern HealthCare (now NorthShore University HealthSystem), an affiliation that's ending in 2009; Northwestern Memorial Hospital; the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago; and the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center.

Feinberg now has 26 departments, 17 school-based centers, 680 medical students, 1,118 residents, 160 graduate students, and 3,715 faculty members (2,061 are full time). Tuition for 2008-09 is $42,974 and room and board ranges from $12,275 (nine months) to $15,125 (12 months). Today, candidates come in with a bachelor's degree, get their MD degree after four years and then most enter residency training as well as fellowships that add three to seven years before they begin practicing.

Feinberg, now one of the major research institutions in the country, received $268.8 million in sponsored research awards in 2008.

All in all, quite a journey for a school that started with seven doctors and a wish to reform medical school education.

(Eileen Norris is a freelance writer based in LaGrange Park)