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Department of Medicine Past and Present


Since our humble beginnings with two students, two professors, and two rooms on the University of Colorado (CU) campus in Boulder in 1883, the Department of Medicine (DOM) has come a long way.

As the largest of the 24 departments in the School of Medicine, we now have about 680 faculty (including 112 PhDs and 25 MD/PhDs), 165 residents, and 120 fellows.

We are ranked 20th among the nation’s departments of medicine for National Institutes of Health funding, garnering $53.5 million in 2011 alone.

We have 27 endowed research professorships made possible with more than $64 million in private donations.

Our Division of Pulmonary Sciences and Critical Care is ranked Number One by U.S. News and World Report, and many of our 14 Divisions are well on their way to the Top 10.

We are privileged to be housed at the 540-acre state-of-the art Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, the nation’s only new medical campus built from the ground up to combine education, research, and patient care.

And under the leadership of our chair, David Schwartz, M.D., we are bridging the gap between cutting-edge research and clinical care to transform medicine into a more targeted, personalized practice.

Here’s how far we have come. 

The Boulder Years (1883-1925)

On May 5, 1883, at the urging of founding CU president Joseph A. Sewall, M.D., CU administrators agreed to establish a “Medical Department” on the fledgling Boulder campus. According to the CU School of Medicine Millennial History, edited by Henry Claman, M.D., and Robert Shikes, M.D., it consisted of two rooms in the Old Main building, two professors, two instructors, and two “hastily recruited” students. Tuition was free, and the department vowed to accept women “on an equal basis with men.” In 1891, to the chagrin of the editors of the Journal of the American Medical Association (which predicted the school’s swift demise), it graduated its first female M.D., Nelly Frances Mayo. (Harvard Medical School didn’t graduate its first women until 1949.)

For decades, CU’s Medical Department was one of four medical schools in Colorado.

But in 1910, the Carnegie Foundation sent a man named Abraham Flexner to review the nation’s medical schools. “His report was so devastating that half the medical schools in the U.S. folded within two years,” recalls Claman, a distinguished professor in the Division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. “Out of those four medical schools came one. It was the University of Colorado.”

By 1917, the “Medical Department” had become the “School of Medicine,” with its own distinct departments and department heads. For years the school was split, with basic sciences taught in Boulder while clinical training took place in Denver via an all-volunteer faculty of practicing physicians.\

Then, on January 23, 1925, the new University of Colorado Health Sciences Center was formally dedicated on a 17-acre campus near Colorado Boulevard and Ninth Avenue in Denver, complete with its own teaching hospital, Colorado General.

The Waring Years (1933-1950)

James Johnston Waring, M.D., a.k.a. “Gentleman Jim” was appointed the first full-time professor and the chair of the Department of Medicine in 1933, marking the beginning of a new era in which research slowly and gradually became a larger focus of the school.

“The coming of full-time faculty and the rise of research in the department went hand in hand,” notes Claman. “You couldn’t be a successful researcher if you were a volunteer faculty member, constantly running downtown to see your patients all the time.”

Waring, who had been schooled at Yale and Johns Hopkins and came to Colorado to seek relief from tuberculosis, vowed to work to eradicate TB. He went on to found the Department of Medicine’s first specialty division, the Division of Industrial Medicine and Hygiene in 1939 and helped create the Colorado Foundation for Research in TB (now known as the Webb-Waring Lung Institute).

By 1950, when Waring retired, the DOM boasted six divisions but was known best as a national hub for pulmonary medicine.

The Meiklejohn Years (1951-1975)

Under the leadership of Gordon Meiklejohn, M.D., from 1951 to 1975, the department expanded rapidly and the medical school began to garner a reputation as a generator of medical “firsts”:

In the early 1950s, faculty members S. Gilbert Blount, M.D., and Henry Swan, M.D., made history by conducting the first human open heart surgeries, on patients who had been plunged into a bathtub of ice water to temporarily halt their circulation while surgery took place. Between 1953 and 1958, more than 500 patients were treated. (The bathtub now rests in the Smithsonian Institution).

In the mid-1950s, Joseph Holmes, M.D., and Douglas Howry, M.D., worked to develop the first ultrasonic scanner. “The patients sat in a water tank made out of an old B-29 gun turret, and held lead weights to keep from floating. The scanner was submerged and moved back and forth via a trolley mounted on the rim of the tank,” according to The University of Colorado School of Medicine: A Centennial History.

In 1963, Thomas Starzl, M.D., PhD, then Chairman of the Department of Surgery, performed the first human liver transplant, putting CU on the map as a training ground in the new field of organ transplantation.

The Schrier Years (1976-2002)

When Robert Schrier, M.D., took the helm of the DOM in July, 1976, it consisted of 75 full-time faculty and brought in $3 million annually in research grants. When he left 26 years later, the full-time faculty had swelled to 500 and external grants had risen to $100 million.

He’d also established the first endowed chair, named after his predecessor, ushering in a new era of once-unheard-of philanthropic support for the department. (Today, the department has 27 endowed chairs).

Schrier entered his post with a whopping 10 faculty positions to fill, and a meager $100,000 in seed money to get them here. He insisted on heading all the national searches and went on to assemble a dream team of specialty Division Heads, each of whom brought along a wealth of equipment, expertise and NIH grant funding (eight have gone on to chair their own departments of medicine at other schools.)

He also founded five new divisions, including Medical Oncology, Health Care Policy and Research, and Internal Medicine, and established a new PhD in Clinical Science Program to groom future physician-scientists.

“A lot of the medical students around the country started applying to the University of Colorado and we became one of the most competitive programs in the country to get into,” recalls Schrier.

The New Era (2002 – Present)

Under the leadership of Department Chair Robert Anderson, M.D., from 2002 to 2010, the Department of Medicine broadened its clinical scope and completed, in 2007, a historic move from its cramped and aging home on Colorado Boulevard to its new digs eight miles east on the site of the shuttered Fitzsimons Army Base.

More than 13 years in the making, the 578-acre Fitzsimons Life Sciences District is now home to the Schools of Medicine, Nursing, Dentistry and Pharmacy; University of Colorado Hospital; Children’s Hospital; a science and technology park; and a new $800 million Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, due to open in 2014.

“It is very unique to be able to work at a place where a brand new medical campus has been built from the ground up,” says David Schwartz, M.D., the DOM’s current chair. “The clinical and research facilities here are state-of-the-art.”

What does the future hold?

“Within the next five years, I believe the Department of Medicine will be among the top-ranked departments of medicine in the country,” says Schwartz.

Learn more about the Department of Medicine here.

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Sources: “History of the Department of Medicine: 1933-1985” edited by Gordon Meiklejohn, M.D., and Charley Smyth, M.D. “The University of Colorado School of Medicine: A Centennial History 1883-1983”,  and “The University of Colorado School of Medicine Millennial History,” edited by Henry Claman, M.D., and Robert Shikes, M.D.

April 2012