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History of the School of Medicine

Within decades of its founding, Washington University School of Medicine was remade in an endeavor to create a model for American medical education and research. This tradition of bold innovation continues to drive us forward today.

In 1891, responding to a national concern for improving doctors’ training, Washington University acquired the independent St. Louis Medical College and established a medical department. Missouri Medical College, also independent, joined the department in 1899, uniting the two oldest medical schools west of the Mississippi River.

Missouri Medical College and Washington University Hospital, Jefferson and Lucas Avenue Buildings. Photo: Bernard Becker Medical LibraryBernard Becker Medical Library
Missouri Medical College and Washington University Hospital, Jefferson and Lucas Avenue Buildings.

A decade later, the young medical department was sharply criticized in a report on the state of medical education in the United States and Canada – an assessment that found most medical institutions wholly inadequate. These findings provoked university board member Robert S. Brookings to transform the department into a modern medical school.

Working with the report’s author, Abraham Flexner, Brookings set about installing the medical school with a full-time faculty, adequate endowment, modern laboratories and associated teaching hospitals. Among the first four department heads he recruited in 1910 was Joseph Erlanger, who went on to win the 1944 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Negative impacts of the Flexner Report

Though Flexner’s scathing assessment ultimately propelled WashU School of Medicine to a higher caliber of medical education, the report’s widespread criticism also led to the closure of many medical schools that did not have the resources for reform. These closures disproportionately affected Black medical schools and women. Only two of the seven historically Black medical schools at the time survived — a loss that continues to impact Black medical education and care today. Flexner also expressed overtly racist and sexist views within the report.

In 1919, Evarts Graham was appointed the first full-time head of surgery. Fourteen years later, he performed the first successful lung removal — on of many firsts at Washington University School of Medicine. In 1910, George Dock established a tradition of distinguished clinical research in the Department of Medicine.

Carl and Gerty Cori arrived at the School of Medicine in 1931 to join the Department of Pharmacology. In 1947, they won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for research on the catalytic conversion of glycogen. Six other Nobelists received training under their auspices. In 2016, Thomas Cori, son of Carl and Gerty, donated his parents’ Nobel prize medals to the university (see video below).

Women first gained admission to the student body in 1918; today, women make up half of each incoming class in medical education. In 1962, James L. Sweatt III, MD, became the first African American graduate of the School of Medicine. It took another 10 years, however, for another black student, Julian Mosley, MD ’72, to matriculate. Today the school is proactively devoting resources to improving diversity, equity and inclusion on campus and in the medical field.

Desegregating the Medical Campus

A permanent campus exhibit, installed by WashU Medicine in collaboration with BJC HealthCare, shares the historical experiences of Black doctors, nurses, patients, students and staff on the Medical Campus. Its purpose is to acknowledge past injustices, and to serve as a reminder of our commitment to racial equity. An expanded timeline is also available online.

Photo: Helen E. Nash, MD, revered for a decades-long career caring for patients and advocating for the underserved, examines a patient at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

The school moved to its current location in the Central West End neighborhood in 1914. When the neighborhood began to falter in the second half of the 20th century, many institutions began to leave. Washington University School of Medicine, Barnes-Jewish Hospital and St. Louis Children’s Hospital formed a coalition in 1962 that went on to lead a successful neighborhood revitalization effort that continues today, through the Washington University Medical Center Redevelopment Corporation.

The nursing school

The Washington University School of Nursing, originally called the Training School for Nurses, was organized under the supervision of the School of Medicine in 1905. In 1954, it became an autonomous school of the university. More than 2,000 nurses graduated from the school before its closing in 1969.

The transmission of excellence from one generation to the next is a hallmark of Washington University School of Medicine. Dean Robert Moore’s 1951 comment remains true today: “An institution is only as great as the individual men and women who compose it.”

Read more about the history of the School of Medicine in these digital exhibits from Bernard Becker Medical Library:

Tradition of excellence

Over the course of its first 150 years, Washington University has made remarkable progress.

Founded in 1853 out of concern for the lack of institutions of higher learning in the midwest, the university has grown from a college educating local men and women to an internationally known research university drawing students and faculty from countries around the world.

History of Washington University »