State-supported medical education in Iowa traces back to the winter of 1850-51, when the state legislature recognized the Keokuk College of Physicians and Surgeons as the official Medical Department of the State University of Iowa. The Keokuk College had begun operations a year earlier as the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Upper Mississippi in Davenport, graduating 15 physicians before its move to Keokuk.
In 1857, the Iowa legislature, meeting in Iowa City, made a major decision that would eventually bring all state-sponsored medical education into one location, but that transition didn’t happen for another thirteen years (1870).
In the late 1860s, a prominent Davenport surgeon named Washington F. Peck (above left) initiated efforts to create a medical college in Iowa City. With support from Judge John F. Dillon (above middle) – a patient of Peck’s and a graduate of the Davenport, IA medical college – and the Honorable John P. Irish (above right) – Iowa City newspaper editor, state legislator, and a member of the SUI Board of Trustees – the Iowa City medical department gained approval as the official SUI medical college in 1870.
The faculty – in 1870 – consisted of eight professors, including Dr. Peck as dean and professor of surgery, and Judge Dillon as a professor of medical jurisprudence. The curriculum for the first class consisted of a two-week course of lectures followed by 16 weeks of clinical training.
Did you know the first graduating class (1871) at the University of Iowa School of Medicine consisted of 37 students, which included eight women—giving Iowa the distinction as the first co-educational medical school in the United States!
The College of Medicine opened its doors for the first class on Sept. 20, 1870, meeting in South Hall, for which an appropriation of $3,000 was made in the summer of 1869 for alterations to meet the needs of the new department. This building, located directly south of Old Capitol, was constructed in 1861 as the first campus building designed specifically for University use. The remodeled building included an amphitheater seating over 100 and a basement dissecting room, as well as cabinets and storage facilities for medical supplies and equipment, but it did not provide hospital beds. Click here for more details about South Hall.
In 1873, four Sisters of Mercy traveled from Davenport by train, carrying as many furnishings and medical supplies as they could manage. They came at the invitation of Dr. Peck, who wanted the Sisters to establish a hospital in Iowa City. Such a hospital would provide a facility where medical students could gain clinical experience and the Sisters could pursue their mission of caring for the poor and sick. Read more about Dr. Washington F. Peck – the founding of the SUI College of Medicine.
When the Sisters arrived at the Iowa City train station, a kindly local farmer offered to take them to their final destination in his wagon. The Sisters were greeted by Dr. Peck and set to work immediately, cleaning and refurbishing the old Mechanics Academy – built in 1842. Within three weeks, on September 27, 1873, the new Mercy Hospital of Iowa City admitted its first patient—a gentleman with tuberculosis. Click here for more details about Mechanics Academy.
As the medical needs grew, so did the first hospital. By the mid-1890’s, a 25-bed addition (above left) was added on the east end of the building, and it included a two-story amphitheater for teaching students. Patients were also served in the Dostal House – a larger home nearby that was purchased by the Sisters of Mercy. More on that building later.
From 1876 to 1919, the University actually had two different Schools of Medicine: Allopathic and Homeopathic, with the differences lying in the approach doctors take in dealing with sickness and disease. The Allopathic Department was housed in South Hall (1870-1882), and the Medical Building (1882-1901), both located south of Old Capitol, while the Homeopathic Department used another facility nearby (1876-1895), eventually moving into their own new facility on the corner of Jefferson and Dubuque Streets in 1895.
(P-0107) (P-0108) The University’s Homeopathic School closed in 1919, but the ideas behind this unique approach to medicine continue to today. Click here for more details about the Homeopathic Medical Building.
The College of Medicine, in 1882, moved next door from their original home in South Hall into the new Medical Building – a state-of-the-art instructional building designed exclusively for medical training purposes. Click here for more details about the Medical Building.
By the late 1890’s, the College of Medicine – serving patients out of the long-outdated Mechanics Academy – had grown to such a degree, SUI decided to step away from its agreement with the Sisters of Mercy, expanding into their own state-sponsored 65-bed hospital (see above), which opened as University Hospital on January 11, 1898.
Built near the now-razed Mechanics Academy, this first wing was located at 328 Iowa Avenue and featured a 200-seat amphitheater for clinical instruction, making SUI the first university-based teaching hospital west of the Mississippi River. The building also housed the first University school of nursing, with seven nurses graduating from the school in 1900.
In the wee-morning hours of March 10, 1901, a devastating fire consumed both the Medical Building and South Hall on the main campus, leaving the College of Medicine without a teaching home. The short term solution was to build two temporary structures on the foundations of the burned out buildings, and find other classroom space as they could. More on this tragedy here.
The State Legislature in 1901 authorized the construction of two new buildings to replace those destroyed by fire, but delay in construction occurred. The two wooden structures built on the foundations of South Hall and the Medical Building served in the pinch, along with some additional space found in the new Hall of Liberal Arts – Schaeffer Hall – on University Square. Finally, in 1904, the Hall of Anatomy and the Hall of Histology, Physiology and Pathology opened on Jefferson Street. These two buildings were closer to the growing University Hospital – on Iowa Avenue – and the Homeopathic Medical Building – on Dubuque Street – and served as medical laboratories until a new Medical Laboratory Building was completed – in 1927 – on the west side of the river.
As we mentioned earlier, in 1897, when the University and the Sisters of Mercy decided to go their separate ways, Mechanics Academy was razed, making way for the first phase of the new University Hospital – the southwest wing on Iowa Avenue – which was completed in 1898. With the Medical Lab and Anatomy Buildings opening on Jefferson Street in 1904, the SUI Hospital complex on Iowa Avenue was ready for expansion.
Additions came in several installments; the southeast wing being completed in 1906, the northwest wing in 1912, and the northeast wing and an addition to the central portion being built in 1914.
(P-0356) This vintage postcard marks the day “when Dad came home from the hospital.” Looks like Dad was at the SUI Hospital from October 18 through November 7, 1907.
(P-0111) This adorable “I Love to Help You – Do You Need Help?” postcard – from 1911 – is dripping with historical significance for Iowa City historians, railroad enthusiasts, and University of Iowa Hospital history. This “get-well” card is addressed to Miss Eunice Crawford, who is a patient at the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City. It was mailed by her Aunt “Sister Mary,” from a community located somewhere on the Muscatine/Montezuma Railway line, postmarked at 2:02 pm on the RPO and delivered to the Hospital probably later that day.
(P-0254) This “Greetings” postcard – featuring an intriguing picture of elephants – is dated March 9, 1918 and comes from an “old college pal” to Mr. Harold Johnson, a WWI sailor who is recovering in the 2nd Ward West of SUI hospital.
(P-0200) (P-0105) (P-0106) After the University Hospital outgrew this expanded campus, moving to the west side of the river in 1928, old University Hospital was renamed East Hall, and in 1981, in honor of Dr. Carl Seashore, the buildings were renamed Seashore Hall – which remained a part of the U of I campus until 2019.
At the turn-of-the-century, America was facing a massive medical crisis. The bacterial disease – tuberculosis – was running rampant and, at the time, the only known remedy was to move those with this deadly lung disease into sanatoriums. In 1908, the State of Iowa opened Oakdale Hall on 280 acres of farmland north of Coralville. Working alongside dedicated doctors and nurses from SUI, the Oakdale campus faithfully served those with TB over the next 50+ years. Read more here.
By 1915, after three wings had been added on Iowa Avenue, it was becoming obvious that the SUI Hospital was outgrowing its present facilities. When a 1919 state law required SUI to accept patients statewide, the die was cast and the Board of Regents began looking seriously at expanding to the west side of the Iowa River – where there was plenty of vacant land.
The transition westward began with a new 150-bed Children’s Hospital – which opened in 1919, and the Psychopathic Hospital for those with mental illness – opening in 1921.
(P-0201) After receiving a donation for $2.25 million from the Rockefeller Foundation, ground was broken (1926) for a seven-story, 770-bed modern hospital on the west side of the Iowa River.
In closing, here’s a tip of the old hat to Iowa City’s three major hospitals…
In 1885, the Sisters of Mercy, while still working side by side with the University, purchased a property called the Dostal House, located about two blocks northeast of the Mechanics Academy, and moved into it early the next year. The remodeled building offered space for more patients and included a carriage house that was turned into a surgery amphitheater. Click here to read more about John P. Dostal and his role in early Iowa City…
As we discussed earlier, the Sisters of Mercy and the University continued to work together for a number of years until, in 1897, the Board of Regents appropriated money to build a new hospital for state-supported purposes only. Thus, the University’s own hospital was created, and the Sisters of Mercy were free to operate their own hospital as a private, community institution.
(P-0118) (P-0232) The Dostal House – This 1910 postcard, from one friend in Iowa City to another friend in Chicago, has a great message – “Would like to exchange pennants with you – will send you one with IOWA on it if you will send me one with CHICAGO on it – send it as soon as you can and I’ll return immediately.”
In 1952, with the University Hospitals & Clinics becoming a regional center for medicine, the United States Department of Veteran Affairs opened a 300-bed Veteran’s Hospital near the expanding University Hospital campus.
Today, the University of Iowa College of Medicine sits at the heart of a health sciences campus that also includes the colleges of Dentistry, Nursing, Pharmacy, and Public Health, as well as UI Hospitals & Clinics which includes the Stead Family Children’s Hospital – home of the famous Hawkeye Wave on Iowa football weekends.
Combine all that with Mercy Hospital/Iowa City and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and you have a world-class medical community right here in the Heartland of Iowa.