Reflecting on medical school’s history

This year marks the 130th anniversary of the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western. Michael Strong, Schulich dean, says the school is using the opportunity to take pause and celebrate the history and achievements that have become an important part of its fabric.

“A lot of people don’t realize how much history there actually is here,” Strong says. “From humble beginnings on James Street, we’ve experienced many significant advancements and contributed massively to health care innovation over the last 130 years.”

Those humble beginnings grew out of vision of about a dozen general practitioners in the early-1880s who saw the need for a medical school in London. They funded the building and library from their own pocketbooks, and each taught one lecture per day. The initial classrooms were in a cottage on James Street. As the story goes, the groundskeeper taught anatomy and had the only key to the bookcase. The first lecture was held on Oct. 1, 1882 with 15 eager students enrolled in the very first class.

“It was an amateur, but also a very community-minded beginning,” says Dr. Paul Potter, former Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine at Schulich. He also has a storied history with the school having taught there for the last 37 years. “I think their vision was to provide health care to the city, and to create an environment where expertise in medicine could be developed here.”

In 1883, Dr. William J. Roche became the school’s first graduate.

In 1883, Dr. William J. Roche became the school’s first graduate.

And, he says, that’s exactly what has happened over the last 13 decades.

The period directly after the Second World War produced a wealth of ground-breaking health research coming out of the school.

Dr. George Edward Hall, the former dean of medicine who went on to be university president, worked closely with Dr. Bertram Collip, who became dean in 1947, to build up the scientific emphasis at the school. In a very short period of time, during Collip’s tenure as dean, four very important medical breakthroughs occurred at the school.

First, Dr. Murray Barr discovered the sex-chromatin, now known as the ‘Barr body,’ which effectively launched the entire field of genetics in the second half of the century. Second, in 1951, doctors delivered the world’s first cancer radiation therapy to ovarian cancer patients using the ‘cobalt bomb.’ Just a few years later, Dr. Robert Noble and Dr. Charles Beer further advanced treatment for cancer by discovering the first chemotherapy drug, called vincaleukablastine (now commonly known as vinblastine). And in 1958, Dr. Charles Drake pioneered a surgical procedure to correct cerebral aneurysms.

“I think we can safely say that was the period when we got onto the world stage in science,” Potter says, adding the next 60 years saw the momentum continue. The addition of the dental school in 1966 and the emergence of expertise in transplantation, imaging, neurology and robotics solidified a much more specialized approach to medicine.

Potter says there likely wouldn’t be a university at all if it weren’t for the medical school. The university would have lost its charter without medicine as its only faculty when other early faculties collapsed in 1885.

“The city without the university and especially without the medical school is hard to imagine, isn’t it?” he says.

That first class of 15 paved the way for the education of thousands.

Last year, Schulich enrolled 525 graduate students, 623 medical students, 224 dentistry students, more than 800 trainees in residency and more than 700 in third- and fourth-year of a bachelor of medical sciences program (a joint program with the Faculty of Science). The school has seen tremendous expansion of its programs into the community with the development of the Windsor Program and Southwestern Ontario Medical Education Network, both building upon its exceptional reputation for clinical learning and hands-on research experience.

In 1924, Dr. Kathleen Braithwaite Sanborn became its first female graduate.

In 1924, Dr. Kathleen Braithwaite Sanborn became its first female graduate.

So, what does the next 130 years hold?

Strong says the next move for the school is to become a global leader in understanding the sustainability of health across the age-spectrum.

“That’s more than just a string of words,” he says. “It means we as a school have to take a leadership role in understanding everything from genetics to how those genetics are modified by your environment and how that then impacts upon your development as you grow older.”

Once understood, he hopes to translate that knowledge into action through a school for public health and public health policy. Both will be in place at Schulich by the year 2013.

“It will fundamentally change our imprint as a school,” he says. “That will get us started on the next 120 years after that.”

Crystal Mackay is communications coordinator at Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry