December 22, 2011

Conventional wisdom holds that Southern Methodist University opened the doors of Dallas Hall to its first students on September 22, 1915, welcoming 456 young men and women to their first classes in the College of Liberal Arts, the School of Theology and the Department of Music.

The 1913 SMU medical diploma for John William Macune hangs on the second floor in the Laura Lee Blanton Building.

These schools, however, were not the first established by the University,
and these students were not the first to attend. In fact, by 1915, SMU had already opened and closed its first school, a medical college; its first degree recipients were awarded medical diplomas in 1912. How SMU came to have a medical school and what happened to it by the time the University opened Dallas Hall in 1915 is a story almost forgotten by history.

With plans under way in 1911 to build SMU, an opportunity for the University soon developed. Southwestern University at Georgetown was struggling to operate a medical college based in Dallas. Opened in 1903, the Southwestern University Medical College was located at 1420 Hall Street, between Bryan and San Jacinto streets. The three-story, gray brick building was completed in 1905 at a cost of $40,000.

However, inadequate resources resulted in a Class C designation for the school, not the Class A designation needed to be accepted by the American Medical Association. The commissioners of education of the Methodist Church, which included SMU President Robert Stewart Hyer, decided the medical college was better suited to the newly chartered SMU. The medical college, which included the medical and the pharmaceutical departments, thus became the University’s first school, with the first class of students (including transfers from Southwestern) matriculating in October 1911, well before ground was broken on Dallas Hall.

The building on Hall Street housed a dean’s room, an office, several laboratories, a bookstore and a large assembly hall. An amphitheater held 125 students and was fitted with “opera chairs” and a “demonstrating table.” A library/reading room was also used as a museum for the many specimens at the college.

According to the 1911 catalog, there were 35 medical school faculty members. Areas of focus included anatomy, medicine, surgery and eye, ear, nose and throat.

In 1911, 66 students matriculated in the medical department and 27 in the pharmacy department. Most of the students came from Texas, with a few from Oklahoma. Tuition was $100 per year for general instruction and another $5 for lab fees. Admission requirements included graduation from a high school or normal school or possession of an entrance certificate to the freshman class of a recognized college or university, and completion of 14 units in “literary work,” such as English, history, mathematics, sciences and foreign languages. Each student also needed a letter granting permission from the State Board of Medical Examiners certifying the above credentials.

At the medical college commencement on May 31, 1913, SMU awarded 14 medical degrees and 10 pharmaceutical degrees. By fall 1913, a record 120 students were expected, faculty numbers had increased to 44, and entrance requirements were raised to include a full year of chemistry, physics and biology at the college level.

The following spring, the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners adopted a resolution declaring that SMU’s Medical College was “doing a character of work equal to that of the very best medical colleges in the United States.” This resolution prompted the AMA’s Council on Medical Education to raise the Medical College’s rating to Class A.

Despite its successes, however, in June 1915, SMU’s Board of Trustees “temporarily suspended” both the medical and pharmaceutical departments, stating that “financial conditions are such that the great expense of such a department is not considered justifiable for the limited number of students, and the money can be spent to better advantage in the college of liberal arts.” One week later, the trustees officially disbanded the medical faculty.

But SMU’s impact on the medical profession is far from over. Today, the University offers strong programs for pre-medical and pre-health studies, and SMU students enjoy a high acceptance rate to the nation’s top medical schools.

Nancy Skochdopole 

Excerpted from an article that appeared in Legacies: A History Journal for Dallas and North Texas and presented to the 11th annual Legacies Dallas History Conference, January 30, 2010.