A Brief History of the Yale School of Medicine

Medicine at Yale traces its roots to the founding of Yale College in 1701. Close to 10 percent of Yale’s eighteenth-century alumni, some 224 graduates of the college, practiced medicine while also serving as members of the clergy. The college awarded an honorary degree, the first medical degree given by an American university, to London practitioner Daniel Turner in 1723 in recognition of his donation of books to the school.

In 1810 the Connecticut General Assembly established the Medical Institution of Yale College, giving Yale and the Connecticut Medical Society shared jurisdiction over the training of physicians. The school opened its doors in 1813 with four professors and 37 students and conferred its first degrees the following year. Ties with the medical society were formally severed 1884. The name Yale College was changed to Yale University in 1887, and the name of the medical school automatically changed, too. The current name, Yale School of Medicine,was adopted in 1918.

Three major figures in 20th-century medicine—Abraham Flexner, Milton C. Winternitz and Harvey Cushing—were closely associated with medical school’s rise in prestige during the first half of the last century. Flexner revolutionized American medicine with his 1910 report to the Carnegie Foundation, in which he recommended Yale and Harvard remain open as the only two medical schools in New England worth preserving. Swayed by the Flexner’s report, the Yale Corporation redoubled its commitment to support the medical school and to strengthen its relationship with the New Haven Hospital as its primary teaching hospital. Winternitz, who served as dean from 1920 to 1935, was the architect of the school’s unique educational philosophy, the Yale system of medical education, which emphasizes critical thinking in a nongraded, noncompetitive environment and requires students to write a thesis based on original research.

Cushing, widely regarded as the father of American neurosurgery and a seminal figure in American medicine, joined the faculty late in his career and donated his extensive collection of books to Yale. The medical school library, which bears his name, is regarded as one of the great medical historical libraries of the world.

Cortlandt Van Rensselaer Creed in 1857 became the first African American student to receive a Yale M.D., Today, Asian American, African American and Hispanic/Latino students comprise 40 percent of the Yale medical students. The door was opened to women in 1916, when Louise Farnam, Helen May Scoville and Lillian Lydia Nye were admitted. Today, half the student body is female.

The medical school grew by leaps and bounds in the post-World War II era, fueled by the rapid expansion of the National Institutes of Health and other federal investments in science and medicine. The school’s growth—from a full-time faculty of less than 100 in 1950 to more than 1,800 today—coincided with major scientific discoveries and medical advances. Yale’s historical contributions to medicine include the first X-ray performed in the United States, the first successful use of penicillin in America, the first use of cancer chemotherapy, and the introduction of fetal heart monitoring, natural childbirth and newborn rooming-in. Yale doctors designed the first artificial heart pump and the first insulin infusion pump for diabetes, and it was here that the means of transmission of the polio virus was established, paving the way for the Salk vaccine. Lyme disease was identified by two Yale physicians in 1975.

More recent milestones include the first transgenic mouse, discovery of the mechanism of protein folding, which is key to understanding neurodegenerative diseases, and discovery of the mechanism of innate immunity, with major implications for infectious disease and cancer. Also: the first reliable method for early detection of autism and identification of genes associated with hypertension, macular degeneration, dyslexia and Tourette’s syndrome, among many others.

With major new infrastructure investments that will facilitate continued state-of-the-art research, the medical school’s rich history is still being written. In 2003, the 457,000 square-foot Anlyan Center for Medical Research and Education was dedicated, increasing research space at the medical school by 25 percent. Another 120,000 square feet came online in 2007 with the opening of the Amistad Building, which houses the newly established Yale Stem Cell Center, the Interdepartmental Program in Vascular Biology and Therapeutics, and the Human and Translational Immunology Program. The Yale University Positron Emission Tomography Center was dedicated in January 2007, and the Yale Center for Clinical Investigation began operations later in the year. A new Yale-New Haven cancer hospital in under construction and slated to open in 2009.