History of Harvard Medicine

On September 19, 1782, the president and fellows of Harvard College adopted a report, presented by President Joseph Willard, embodying plans for a medical school. With a handful of students and a faculty of three, classes at the Medical School began in 1783 at Harvard Hall in the College yard and later were transferred to Holden Hall, originally the College Chapel.

Medical education in that era meant attending formal lectures for a semester or two, then being apprenticed to a practicing physician for several years. No academic preparation was required, and no written exams were mandatory. Students did not pay tuition but bought tickets to admit them to professors’ lectures. Because no hospital existed for teaching, very little clinical training was required for the degree.

The first three professors of the School were John Warren, Professor of Anatomy and Surgery; Benjamin Waterhouse, Professor of the Theory and Practice of Physic; and Aaron Dexter, Professor of Chemistry and Materia Medica. Benjamin Waterhouse had been educated at universities and hospitals in Europe. As a result of his contacts in England, he received a publication printed there in 1798 by Edward Jenner, reporting successful vaccination against smallpox. Waterhouse introduced Jenner's ideas to the US medical community and first used the vaccine on members of his own family. As a result of Waterhouse's vigorous support, smallpox vaccination was tested in Boston and gained acceptance in the US.

John Warren, a skilled teacher and surgeon, was instrumental in moving the Medical School to Boston, which was a more convenient location for the faculty to see their private patients as well as those in the dispensaries and military and naval hospitals that were being established in the city. In 1811, Warren's son, John Collins Warren, along with James Jackson, led efforts to found the Massachusetts General Hospital. Because, at that time, all those who had sufficient money were cared for at home, the Massachusetts General Hospital, like most hospitals that were founded in the 19th century, was intended to care for the poor who were physically or mentally ill.

The Medical School moved from Cambridge to Boston in 1810 and has been here ever since. For the first six years, the School was located at 400 Washington Street; from 1816 to 1846, the School was located on Mason Street. In recognition of a gift from the Great and General Court of Massachusetts (based on a private bequest), the School was called the Massachusetts Medical College of Harvard University. In 1847 the Medical School moved to North Grove Street, next to the Bulfinch Building of the Massachusetts General Hospital, providing an intimate physical connection between the School and the hospital. The School remained there until 1883, and then relocated again, this time to Boylston Street in Copley Square, where the new wing of the Boston Public Library now stands. These early moves took place in order to locate the School near clinical facilities that functioned under other auspices. This approach established a pattern, unique to HMS, of relying upon clinical settings that are intimately related to, but not owned by, the University.

Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot came to office in 1869, and in the few years following, he established a novel curriculum at the Medical School. Admissions standards were raised, written exams requiring passing grades were instituted, new departments of basic and clinical sciences were established, a three-year degree program was introduced, and the apprenticeship system was eliminated. Harvard Medical School became a professional school of Harvard University, setting the United States standard for the organization of medical education within a university.

In 1906, the Medical School moved to Longwood Avenue in Boston, and the five marble-faced buildings that comprise the Quadrangle were dedicated. The Fenway was open farm and marshland when the Medical School moved there, and that combination of a new school and empty land stimulated a migration of hospitals to the area.

The Medical School currently has seven basic science departments: Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology; Cell Biology; Genetics; Microbiology and Immunobiology; Neurobiology; Systems Biology; Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology; and two social science departments: Health Care Policy and Global Health and Social Medicine. In addition, some fifty other clinical departments are located in 18 affiliated institutions, where most of the clinical training for medical students, interns, residents, and fellows takes place. The affiliates include Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; Brigham and Women's Hospital; Cambridge Health Alliance; Boston Children's Hospital; Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; Forsyth Institute; Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare Institute; Hebrew SeniorLife; Joslin Diabetes Center; Judge Baker Children's Center; Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary; Massachusetts General Hospital; McLean Hospital; Mount Auburn Hospital; Schepens Eye Research Institute; Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital; and Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System.

For over two centuries, Harvard Medical School has been a major participant in the effort to understand life, to cure and prevent disease, and to reduce the burden of human illness. The School is a place of “firsts.” Since the introduction of smallpox vaccination to America in 1799 by Professor Waterhouse, Harvard Medical School faculty have established a vibrant tradition of discovery and innovation, including the first use of anesthesia for pain control during surgery; the introduction of insulin to the US to treat diabetes; understanding of the role of vitamin B12 in treating anemia; identification of coenzyme A and understanding of proteins; developing tissue culture methods for the polio virus, which paved the way for vaccines against polio; mapping the visual system of the brain; development of the first successful chemotherapy for childhood leukemia; development of the first implantable cardiac pacemaker; discovering the inheritance of immunity to infection; development of artificial skin for burn victims; the first successful heart valve surgery; the first successful human kidney transplant; the first reattachment of a severed human limb; discovery of the genes that cause Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, Huntington’s Disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and Alzheimer’s Disease, among many others; establishing the importance of tumor vascular supply (angiogenesis) and seeding the field of vascular biology; and discovery of the cause of preeclampsia. Five of our affiliated institutions,Mass General, Brigham and Women’s, Dana-Farber, Beth Israel Deaconess, and Boston Children’s, consistently rank among the top five independent teaching hospitals nationally in level of biomedical research funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Perhaps Harvard Medical School’s most enduring contribution has been the education of leaders of medicine and healthcare, establishing a standard of excellence in research, teaching and the care of patients in America and increasingly in other countries. In the academic realm, Harvard Medical School has trained more current full-time academic faculty, department chairs, and medical school deans than any other single medical school. The challenge of each generation of students is to carry on that proud tradition.

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Last updated 7/30/18