The History of HMS
Established in 1782, Harvard Medical School began with a handful of students and a faculty of three. The first classes were held in Harvard Hall in Cambridge, long before the school’s iconic quadrangle was built in Boston. With each passing decade, the school’s faculty and trainees amassed knowledge and influence, shaping medicine in the United States and beyond. Some community members—and their accomplishments—have assumed the status of legend. We invite you to access the following resources to explore Harvard Medical School’s rich history.
Members of the Harvard Medical School community have been expanding the boundaries of knowledge for more than 200 years. The following entries represent just a sampling of their progress, including accomplishments made by faculty members at the school’s affiliated hospitals and research institutes.
Medical education in the 18th century consisted of formal lectures for a semester or two, followed by an apprenticeship with a practicing physician. No academic preparation was required, no written exams were mandatory. Students did not pay tuition. Instead, they bought tickets to each lecture. Since teaching hospitals did not exist, clinical training requirements were minimal.
The first three faculty members of the School were Benjamin Waterhouse, professor of the theory and practice of physic, John Warren, professor of anatomy and surgery, and Aaron Dextor, professor of chemistry and materia medica (pharmacology).
Dr. 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 U.S. medical community and first used the vaccine on members of his own family. As a result of Waterhouse’s vigorous support of smallpox vaccination, it was tested in Boston and gained acceptance in the United States.
Dr. Warren, a skilled teacher and surgeon, was instrumental in moving the Medical School to Boston, where it was more convenient for the faculty to see not only their private patients, but also patients in the military and naval hospitals and in public dispensaries being established in the city.
The Many Homes
Before moving in 1906 to its current home on Longwood Avenue, there were many homes for Harvard Medical School.
The Medical School moved from Cambridge to Boston in 1810. The following year, Dr. Warren’s son, John Collins Warren, and James Jackson led efforts to start Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston. MGH, like most hospitals founded in the 19th century, started out caring for the poor; patients who could afford medical care received it at home.
From 1816 to 1846 the Medical School was located on Mason Street. With a gift from a private bequest through the Great and General Court of Massachusetts, the School became known as the Massachusetts Medical College of Harvard University. In 1847 the School moved to North Grove Street, next door to the Bulfinch Building of MGH. In 1883 the School relocated to Boylston Street in Copley Square on the site where the new wing of the Boston Public Library now stands.
The Eliot Years
Many changes were made by Charles William Eliot during his term as the 21st president of Harvard University.
Within a few years of becoming president of Harvard in 1860, Charles Eliot established a novel curriculum at the Medical School. Admissions standards were raised, written exams and passing grades were required, 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 where the five original marble-faced buildings of the quadrangle are still used for classrooms, research laboratories and administrative offices. At the time of the move, the Fenway was open farm and marshland. The combination of a new medical school and empty land drew hospitals to the neighborhood now known as the Longwood Medical Area.
“These superb buildings are an expression of the intelligence and public spirit of many generations and of the ardent hopes of the present generation for a new relief of man’s estate,” said Harvard President Charles Eliot during the 1906 dedication ceremonies for the new Longwood Campus.
A Shift in Focus
Deans of the Faculty
The first administrative organization of Harvard Medical School after its founding in 1782 took place in 1816 with the appointment of John Collins Warren as dean. He was a founder of the New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery and the first surgeon to demonstrate the use of ether anesthesia. Learn about Warren and other distinguished doctors who molded Harvard Medical School into its current form. Click here for a full listing of past deans.
Harvard Medicine Magazine
Since 1927, Harvard Medicine, formerly known as the Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin, has featured doctors’ voices on topics ranging from the healing power of music to the neurology of humor. The magazine seeks to capture the work of the Harvard Medical School community and its power to make contributions to human health.
Center for the History of Medicine
The Center for the History of Medicine at Countway Library is one of the world’s leading collections in the history of health care and medicine, attracting researchers from around the world to consult its rare books and journals, archives and manuscripts, photographs and prints, and art and artifact collections. The history of medicine plays a critical role in informing contemporary medicine, at the same time that it informs our understanding of the larger society within which medicine is embedded.