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

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.

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

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.

Read more about the nursing school’s history »

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.

The school moved to its current location in the Central West End neighborhood in 1914. When the neighorhood 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.

Tradition of excellence

Over the course of its first 150 years, Washington University has made remarkable progress, growing from a college educating local men and women to an internationally known research university with students and faculty from approximately 110 countries.

Read the history of Washington University in St. Louis »

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: