The University of Michigan Medical Center hosted a lecture this past Friday on the history of its development. The lecture was given by Professor of Medical History Joel Howell. About 120 people attended the event, including doctors from the medical center and applicants for the hospital’s intern program. 

Howell said the University Hospital was the first hospital in the U.S. to be owned and operated by a university when it was built in 1817. He emphasized the fact that the introduction of the University Medical School in 1850, was a key player in the hospital’s existence. At the time, it was not common for medical schools to teach in an application structured curriculum, let alone exist as a college. Due to the absence of any licensing laws on medical practitioners, most people aiming for a medical career would simply hold an apprenticeship for two years and could open their own practice afterward.  

“First of all, there were no license-laws. This meant that anyone could go out and hang up a shingle and start to practice medicine,” Howell said. “If you were good, people would come to you, and if you weren’t so good, people would stop seeing you.”

Howell said the school ran a two-year program in which students would attend a specific series of lectures the first year, and then take the same exact lectures their second year. Howell explained the hospital did this in the hopes students would absorb more information. 

“The classes were ungraded, and by that I don’t mean A, B, C, D, I mean that you heard the same lectures, two years in a row,” Howell said.  “Presumably you got more out of it the second time around.” 

Howell also said the University used to run two separate hospitals: one for homeopathic medicine and one for allopathic medicine. Howell explained operations were performed in the medical school amphitheater prior to the development of operating rooms.

“The operations were done in the medical school amphitheater, which was a little bit dicey because dissections with cadavers were also in the medical school amphitheater,” Howell said. “After operating on patients, they had to be carried across the street and across the University to get back into the hospital.”

In 1881, the medical school became the first to admit women. People of color were also admitted around the same time, according to Howell. Howell shared a photo of a classroom in which men of color are sitting in the back row of the class and the women are sitting in a sectioned off bench to the side. He also shared a note from the Board of Regents in 1870 and two responses from news sources of the time.

“The regents resolved in 1870 that ‘the Board of Regents recognized the right of every resident of Michigan to the enjoyment of the privileges afforded by the University and that they will admit anyone with the requisite in literary and moral qualifications,’” Howell said. “And with that, we became the first major medical school in the country to admit women, and they got national attention.”

Howell also explained old hospitals were organized in wards, not private rooms. 

“Another important change is that the hospital stopped being a place for the poor to care and it started to be a place for the well-to-do to get care,” Howell said. “The people of means didn’t want to go into the hospital and sit in a big multi-patient room, so they started wanting private rooms and places where they could be cared for.” 

The hospital expanded in 1925 with an extension called the Old Main Hospital, which was modeled based on the layout of a factory. It had 1,225 beds, emphasized the importance of research, had many labs and was fully wired throughout the hospital so that EKGs and X-rays could be administered right from a patient’s room.  

Howell shared that the Old Main Hospital was the largest publicly-financed structure in the state.

“It had 13 stories and cost about $4.5 million dollars,” Howell said. “That’s about 65 million in today’s dollars.” 

In 1969, Mott’s Children’s Hospital was built to help ease the pressure on Old Main. In 1989, the old hospital was torn down in totality and rebuilt into the current medical center.

Howell ended the presentation by discussing the newly approved expansion of the hospital. He also shared the core principles that have always been instilled in the hospital as an institution and will continue to be applied in the future. 

“The University Hospital exists to serve the core value of education,” Howell said. “Part of our mission is not only to provide care for the underserved — remember that the first University hospital provided care for free — but also the social mission of reproducing ourselves.”

Nora Bismar, who was touring the hospital as an internal medicine intern applicant, told The Daily she was amazed by the history discussed during the presentation.

“I thought it was really fascinating, especially on an interview day to kind of hear the history of the hospital, how it started and how its progressed,” Bismar said.

Former University Hospital doctor John Santinga said he had never heard anyone say they missed Old Main Hospital.

“It’s amazing that when I was still working in the new hospital, I never heard one complaint of anyone ever missing Old Main,” Santinga said. “Usually, someone will say, ‘Well, I miss the old place,’ but I never heard one complaint. The new hospital is so nice, so air-conditioned, and had private or semi-private rooms.”


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