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Our History

Department of Medicine, Past and Present

DOM small.jpgSince 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 23 departments in the School of Medicine, we have over 950 regular faculty members (including 147 PhDs and 33 MD/PhDs), 188 residents, and approimately 200 clinical and research fellows. 

With more than $98M in current research funding, we are consistently among the top 25 departments of medicine in National Institutes of Health research funding.

We have 41 endowed chairs. Our Division of Pulmonary Sciences and Critical Care is ranked among the best in the nation by U.S. News and World Report, with several other divisions also achieving national ranking.

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

And under the leadership of our chair, David Schwartz, MD, 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, MD, CU administrators agreed to establish a “Medical Department” on the fledgling Boulder campus. According to The University of Colorado School of Medicine: A Centennial History, edited by Henry Claman, MD, and Robert Shikes, MD, 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 MD, 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 9th Avenue in Denver, complete with its own teaching hospital, Colorado General.

The Waring Years (1933-1950)

James “Gentleman Jim” Johnston Waring, MD, 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 (afterward known as the Webb-Waring Lung Institute, which merged into CU in 2008 and became the Webb-Waring Center). 

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, MD, 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, MD, and Henry Swan, MD, 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, MD, and Douglas Howry, MD, 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, MD, PhD, then Chair 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, MD, took the helm of the DOM in July 1976, it consisted of 75 full-time faculty and brought in $3M annually in research grants. When he left 26 years later, the full-time faculty had swelled to 500 and external grants had risen to $100M.

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, MD, 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 (now the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and the Fitzsimons Life Science District).
More than 13 years in the making, the 578-acre campus 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 Department of Veterans Affairs hospital under construction in 2015.

“The clinical and research facilities here are state-of-the-art. More importantly, the entire campus was designed with an eye towards collaboration and cross-pollination between the university’s missions of education, patient care, research and community engagement,” says David Schwartz, MD, the DOM’s chair since 2011.

What does the future hold?

“I believe that our department will emerge as one of the very best Departments of Medicine in the country by the year 2020, by integrating our clinical, research, and educational programs and by focusing on the impact we can make in the careers of our trainees and the lives of our patients,” says Schwartz.

Learn more about the Department of Medicine's vision here​.


“History of the Department of Medicine: 1933-1985” edited by Gordon Meiklejohn, MD, and Charley Smyth, MD.

“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, MD, and Robert Shikes, MD.​​