SUI’s Wise Choice – Picking Dr. Peck.

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. Did you know that there was one young doctor – age 29 – from Davenport, Iowa who was at the very center of all this back in 1870?

Washington F. Peck – surgeon, medical educator, hospital director, and founder of State University of Iowa Medical College, and Mercy Hospitals in Iowa City and Davenport, Iowa.

Washington Freeman Peck, born on January 22, 1841 in Galen, Wayne County, New York, took his medical training at Bellevue Medical College in New York City. Peck holds the unique honor of being the first student to attend a medical college in the U.S. that combined teaching with practical clinical work! Upon his graduation (1863) with highest class honors, Peck entered into military service as a Civil War surgeon, and over a period of eighteen months, he was stationed at Lincoln Hospital in Washington D.C., where he attracted much attention and won official commendation.

As his service in the army came to an end, W.F. Peck, age 23, decided it was time to move westward, arriving in Davenport, Iowa in 1864. Here in Iowa, and now married to another New Yorker – Maria Purdy (1865), W.F. quickly established a prosperous medical practice, and with that status, labored, over the next twenty-seven years, to improve public health. In 1865, W.F. secured compulsory smallpox vaccinations for his community, and, in 1873, in the midst of a severe cholera epidemic, insisted on the construction of the city’s sewer system, plus the closure of surface wells and cesspools. In 1866, Peck was made secretary of the Scott County Medical Society, a few years later became its president, and in 1876, was advanced to the presidency of the Iowa State Medical Society.

Soon after Dr. Peck came to Davenport, he was asked to serve as the medical advisor for the local branch of the Rock Island Railroad, a position that no railway corporation across the country had ever attempted. By 1875, W.F. was promoted to “surgeon-in-chief” of the entire company, and assigned the task of organizing its medical and surgical department. As head of this medical department, Dr. Peck had on his surgical staff, during the later years of his life, nearly one hundred surgeons, located at different points up and down the line of this expansive railway company.

In 1869, at Dr. Peck’s suggestion, the buildings and grounds of the former Academy of the Immaculate Conception were converted into Mercy Hospital – Davenport and placed in the compassionate hands of Mother Mary Borromeo and the Sisters of Mercy, with Peck serving as head physician and president of the Board. The third hospital established west of the Mississippi River, Mercy opened late in the evening of December 7, 1869, when the Sisters opened the doors to a deserted wife and prospective mother who had nowhere else to reside for the night.

In another work of mercy, Dr. Peck was not only instrumental in the formation of the Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home in Davenport (1867) – but he also served as the head physician well in the 1880’s. Built originally to meet the needs of orphans resulting from the Civil War, children from broken homes from all of Iowa’s 99 counties were eventually welcomed to this place of refuge.

As we discuss in another post, in 1857, when the state capital moved from Iowa City to Des Moines, the state legislature determined that all state-supported programs of higher education – which at the time were scattered all around the state – must now be located in Iowa City. Yet when Dr. Peck arrived in Davenport in 1864, Iowa’s only medical school was still located in Keokuk, and in all truth, was grossly under-funded. In a strong desire for more centrally-located medical education, Dr. Peck, in 1868, began his pursuit to convince the legislature in Des Moines to put actions to their words, building a first-class medical school in Iowa City.

Peck’s first step in this campaign was to enlist the support of his good friend in Davenport, the influential Judge John F. Dillon (above left). Together, these two men began to gather support for Peck’s Iowa City plan, recruiting others such as SUI Professor Gustavus Hinrichs (above middle) – a connection from Davenport – and Iowa City newspaperman John P. Irish (above right). On September 17, 1868, Peck presented his idea before the Trustees of the University, proposing the creation of a six-person medical department with professors of surgery, theory & practice of medicine, obstetrics, anatomy, chemistry, and materia medica (pharmacology). Knowing that the Iowa legislature would not pay salaries, Peck suggested that the faculty be paid from student fees. The Trustees liked the plan, approving it the very next day, but sadly, nothing was really done with Peck’s ideas until the following summer, when an appropriation of $3,000 was finally made for alterations to South Hall in order to meet the needs of the new department.

South Hall, 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. Read more here.
(JP-008) This very rare postal cover is not dated with a year – Nov. 2 ?? – but we know, from the records of SUI, that it must have been sent to Dr. Wm. F. Peck sometime between 1868 -1870 – the period of time when James Black was the President of SUI. Obviously, during this season, there was a lot of communication between the Medical Department’s Committee on Organization (see above) and Dr. Peck in Davenport!

By this time (1869-1870), bitter opposition to Peck’s plan was being expressed by a group of doctors led by Dean Hughes of the medical school in Keokuk. This opposition peaked at the meeting of the State Medical Society in February 1870, with resolutions passed, and then signed by the Governor, calling for the abolition of the new Medical College in Iowa City. This bill to abolish Peck’s plan was narrowly passed by the Senate, but failed in the House, so a substitute bill was then introduced, giving control of the State University (SUI) to a newly-created Board of Regents, with the power to decide the ultimate fate of the Medical Department. This five-person Board met for the first time in the spring of 1870, and passed a resolution by a 3-2 vote, approving the establishment of the Iowa City Medical Department. The Board then appointed Dr. Peck as Department Head, giving him the authority to make the necessary faculty appointments, and instructing him that the new school must be open no later than that fall (1870)!

So, on September 20, 1870, Dr. Peck and his team of physician friends – all younger than 40 years old – opened the new SUI Medical Department. Thirty-seven students, including eight women, formed the first class, with SUI being the first medical school west of the Mississippi to admit women on equal footing with men. The curriculum consisted of five daily lectures and four weekly clinical demonstrations from October to April, with the same sequence repeated for the second year – a typical mid-19th-century medical education. Read more here.

Eight physicians served the Medical Department during its first year of classes on the SUI campus. Seated (L to R) are Philo J. Farnsworth, chair of materia medica; Washington F. Peck, dean and chair of surgery; and John F. Dillon, chair of medical jurisprudence. Standing (L to R) are Gustavus D. Hinrichs, chair of chemistry; John C. Shrader, chair of obstetrics and gynecology – successor of Dr. J.F. Kennedy – who turned down his appointment as chair of obstetrics; William B. Robertson, chair of theory and practice in medicine; William D. Middleton, chair of physiology; and Elmer F. Clapp, chair of anatomy – successor of James H. Boucher – who was dismissed earlier in the school year (see details below).

The first crisis threatening Dr. Peck and his new Medical School arose during the first year of operation (1870-71). The University Catalogue emphasized the role of “Practical Anatomy” in the curriculum, and asserted that “our facilities for obtaining material have been perfected, so that an abundant supply will always be at hand.” Evidently logistic imperfections were encountered, however, and a great public outcry arose when it was discovered that a recently interred body had disappeared from Oakland Cemetery. Feelings were intensified when a notebook belonging to the Anatomy Department janitor was found near the desecrated grave!

The missing body mysteriously reappeared a night or two later in a casket behind a local mortuary, but did show evidence of partial dissection. At this point, Dr. Peck stepped in, firing both the janitor and the anatomy professor – his good friend Dr. James H. Boucher – in order to preserve the dignity of the program. The State soon took the necessary legal steps to make available for dissection the unclaimed bodies of persons dying in Iowa prisons, and this apparently provided the “abundant supply” of “material” promised by the Medical College prospectus!

Realizing the shortcomings of clinical demonstrations in South Hall, Dr. Peck worked to create a hospital in which to teach. He raised $4,000 from Iowa City businessmen and $1,500 from the regents in order to convert Mechanics Academy into a 20-bed hospital complete with a surgical theater and outpatient dispensary. Peck then persuaded his old friends from Davenport – the Sisters of Mercy to provide four nuns “specially educated in the treatment of the sick” to serve as nurses. By September of 1873, the conversion of Mechanics Academy was complete, and Peck and his medical faculty had created Iowa’s first teaching hospital. More details here.

Mechanics Academy placed a huge role in the earliest days of SUI. Read more here.

With the establishment of the hospital, enrollment increased rapidly, reaching 100 in 1875 and averaging 130 students for the next 15 years. During that time, Peck served as professor of surgery and dean, lobbying the Iowa Legislature for more resources, securing modest faculty salaries, and funds for hospital improvements. Soon, he had doubled the number of faculty and added a third year to the curriculum, keeping SUI apace with developments in medical education.

In the early 1880’s, Dr. Peck and Dr. John C. Shrader were the movers-n-shakers in raising funds for the much-needed Medical Building – constructed adjacent to South Hall (see pic below) – opening in 1882. Read more here.

The new Medical Building was a state-of-the-art medical training facility – opening in 1882 – directly south of South Hall. Read more here.

In addition to his work at SUI, Dr. Peck found time to write articles for national medical journals, maintain his medical practice in Davenport, and serve as president of the Iowa State Medical Society in 1875-1876. His peers held him in high esteem, with one writing that Peck possessed “the faculty of inspiring absolute confidence in his patients” by weighing options of each case and then operating with “fearless skill unmatched by other surgeons.”

An active member of the American Medical Association, Peck was selected, without his knowledge or solicitation, as a member of the American Surgical Association – an organization so exclusive in its character, that its membership, at the time, was limited to one hundred. In 1886, he went abroad to find that his fame had preceded him, and that physicians, scientists and public officials across the continent were, by no means, unfamiliar with his name and achievements. In 1890, he returned again to Europe as a delegate to the International Medical Congress, held in Berlin, and to the British Medical Association, which met at Birmingham.

It’s important to mention here that Dr. Peck’s wife – Maria Purdy Peck – made a huge difference in many people’s lives as well. While overseeing her family in Davenport, she also made time for major work that benefited her entire community.

Pictured is Oak Terrace – the Peck home located at 723 Brady Street (1903). Maria Peck was the founder of the St. Luke’s Training School for Nurses, the first school of its kind established in Iowa, and helped promote the Scott County Historical Society, of which she was president for two years. A charter member of the Hannah Caldwell Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Maria served as Regent of the chapter from 1900-1901 and 1907-1914, and was the second Iowa State Regent, serving from 1903-1904.
In 1893, Mrs. Peck made an impressive speech at the Chicago World’s Fair – speaking on the theme of Law and Women – a talk that was very well received and published in a collection of works in 1894.

Dr. Peck tendered his resignation as professor of surgery in the SUI Medical Department, and on June 16, 1891, the following resolution was unanimously adopted by the Board of Regents:

Whereas, on account of illness, Doctor W. F. Peck has found it necessary to tender his resignation as professor of surgery in the medical department, (we) take this occasion to express our deep regret that the time has come when Doctor Peck must sever his active relations with the university. We recognize that to his untiring industry, his keen, practical good sense, his great reputation in the State and Nation as a surgeon, the department owed the largest measure of its success. He it was who organized the medical department nearly a quarter of a century ago, under circumstances that would have daunted one less courageous; he has watched it and nurtured it with rare devotion through all its vicissitudes, and it has grown with the years under his earnest and wise care, until it stands as a fitting monument to his ability and devotion. Be it resolved, that Doctor W. F. Peck be appointed Emeritus Professor of Surgery, and that he be requested to retain his connection with the university and give us the benefit of his advice, and when health will permit, that he will still give instruction by lecture or otherwise in that department, with the hope that his days may be long in the land to aid and counsel us.

Sadly, during the summer and fall of 1891, Dr. Peck’s health steadily failed, and on December 12, 1891, he died at the young age of 50. Below are copies of the articles that covered the story of Dr. Peck’s death – appearing in The Iowa Citizen and The Davenport Democrat

One biographer honored Dr. Peck with these words…

Doctor Washington F. Peck was associated with an era of improvements in methods, of new discoveries and remarkable operations which has had no parallel in the history of surgery. A progressive mind, which could not be confined within circumscribed limits. So constituted that he could not be content to follow beaten paths, and with intellectual breadth he combined the skill of hand which wrought results deemed at the time almost marvelous. Doctor Peck belonged to the very limited number of surgeons whose field of operations has been the “Great West,” who have achieved national and international renown. All the years of his professional life were devoted to practice in this western field.

When the first University Hospital built with state funds opened in 1898, the Board of Regents named the surgical ward for Washington Freeman Peck – a fitting tribute to the man whose persistence made the hospital possible. More details here.

Maria Purdy Peck (1840-1914) – wife of Dr. Peck – is buried alongside the good doctor at Oakdale Memorial Gardens in Davenport, Iowa. Here’s a big tip of the old hat to Dr. Washington Freeman Peck (1841-1891).

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Peck, Washington Freeman, Matthew Schaefer, The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, University of Iowa Digital Library

Dr. Washington F. Peck, Biographical History and Portrait Gallery of Scott County, Iowa. American Biographical Publishing Company, H. C. Cooper, Jr., & Co. Proprietors. 1895,

Washington F. Peck, Catalogue of House Staff of Bellevue Hospital from 1850-1873, Bellevue Press, p 25

Sisters of Mercy, Edgar Rubey Harlan. A Narrative History of the People of Iowa. Vol III. Chicago: American Historical Society, 1931 pp 361-362

Physicians, The Daily Davenport Democrat, July 27, 1870, p 2

Mercy Hospital-Davenport – History of Genesis Health System,

Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home, Wikipedia

1870 – Peck Appointed Founding Dean, Our History: A Timeline of 150 years of the Carver College of Medicine, University of Iowa Healthcare

University of Iowa Medical Department faculty, 1870-71, Time Capsule, MedicineIowa

University Medical Department Created At Iowa City, Departmental History, University of Iowa HealthCare

What The Regents Did, The Iowa Citizen, June 26, 1891, p 14

Dr. Peck Is Dead, The Iowa Citizen, December 18, 1891, p 7

The State Mourns, The Davenport Sunday Democrat, December 13, 1891, p 1

Earth’s Last Honors, The Davenport Democrat, December 14, 1891, p 1

Medical School Resolution, The Iowa Citizen, December 25, 1891, p 6

Law And Women, The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp 623-27

Maria Purdy Peck, The Blue Book of Iowa Women, 1914, p 105

Maria Purdy Peck, The Annals of Iowa, Volume 11 Number 7, 1914, p 560

David Cox as Dr. Washington F. Peck, Oakdale Memorial Gardens

Maria Purdy Peck, Find-A-Grave

Dr Washington Freeman Peck, Find-A-Grave

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