The University Record, February 21, 2000

Students traveled ‘out west’ for bodies to dissect

By Kallie Michels
Health System Public Relations

The first Medical School building stood on East University where the Randall Laboratory is located. Photos courtesy Bentley Historical Library and the Historical Center for the Health Sciences
Today’s world-renowned U-M Medical School seems a long way off from the place one early medical student excitedly wrote his mother about—saying a classmate had gone ‘out west’ and brought back two dead gunmen for dissection.

Such is the case, however, for a medical school born in the days of the stagecoach and this year celebrating its 150th anniversary, says medical historian Howard Markel in an article in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Markel highlights the Medical School’s rich and groundbreaking history in “An Example Worthy of Imitation: The University of Michigan Medical School, 1850–2000.” Markel, director of the Historical Center for the Health Sciences, is on sabbatical at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.

The seemingly bizarre acquisition of cadavers for medical students to dissect wasn’t really that strange for a 19th-century medical school, Markel writes, quoting historian Thomas N. Bonner: “No school of this era was without its ‘horror stories’ of nightly raids on cemeteries, a provoked and outraged citizenry and violent attacks on the offending parties.”

The U-M made history when, in 1925, it opened the Albert Kahn-designed 893-bed University Hospital (‘Old Main’), the largest and most modern facility of its kind in the nation at that time. Today, the site is guarded by the two evergreens that flanked the entrance.
Yet there are also many examples of distinction in the U-M’s 150-year history, especially its scientific approach to training, says Markel, who is also an associate professor of pediatrics and communicable diseases.

Indeed, he writes, even as early as the 1870s, “instead of requiring regurgitation of dusty textbooks and antiquated prescriptions, Michigan medical students were challenged to be active participants in their medical education.”

“They were required to understand the biological basis of disease and to reason through puzzling clinical presentations. Scientific thought was now the monarch of modern medical practice, and the University of Michigan was making fundamental changes to its medical curriculum decades before the landmark Flexner Report on Medical Education of 1910 mandated the reform of American medical training.”

The article details other notable moments in the school’s colorful history:

  • The first class of 95 students (90 medical students and five physicians or clergymen seeking additional training) were the only ones in the United States taught by professors whose salaries were paid entirely by the University. This way, students didn’t have to buy admission tickets from their professors for lectures and demonstrations, as did their counterparts at for-profit schools.

  • U-M students had access to their own hospital and laboratory for training, unlike those at most other schools. U-M, in fact, established the country’s first university-owned hospital in 1869. As early as 1878, all U-M students were required to complete lab instruction in every scientific subject offered, including physiology, anatomy and chemistry. This became, says Markel, the “gold standard of medical education in the United States.” Likewise, the U-M was one of the first institutions to require a medical clerkship in which students were responsible for direct patient care under faculty supervision.

  • The U-M began routinely accepting women, Asians, Jews and African Americans into its student body long before most other medical schools. Still, women were taught such courses as anatomy and gynecology separately from male students, in deference to the women’s “sensibilities,” and the first woman graduate received hoots from some male students as she accepted her diploma.

  • The U-M again made history when, in 1925, it opened the Albert Kahn-designed 893-bed University Hospital, the largest and most modern facility of its kind in the nation.

  • U-M researchers and physicians have made numerous medical breakthroughs, including the discovery of the gene that codes for cystic fibrosis and the refinement of the electrocardiogram as a clinical tool for diagnosing heart disease.