The Early Years

About HMS

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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 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.

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.



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