Five short years after the first medical school in the state of Florida opened its doors, a young Bernie Fogel had his first encounter with that school—as a freshman medical student.  He was taken aback by what he saw. “It was truly a makeshift undertaking,” Fogel says in describing the “unair-conditioned, almost deplorable physical surroundings” of the University of Miami School of Medicine, circa 1957.  Twenty-four years later, Fogel was named dean of the school, the first major appointment made by the University’s new president, Edward T. “Tad” Foote II. Today both Fogel, as dean emeritus, and Foote, as University chancellor, love talking about the extraordinary surroundings of the School of Medicine, circa 2002.  “Every time I go to the medical school, I find time to sit in the Schoninger Research Quadrangle and think about the children who are helped at the Batchelor Children’s Research Institute, about the diabetes research we are doing, about The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis,” Foote says. “The quad is the physical affirmation that we are in this for the long haul. Day by day, our doctors, scientists, nurses, and staff are making human life a little better.  “This medical center is a place of miracles.”

The journey from those early days in the leaky, uncomfortable setting in the old servants’ quarters of The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables—then the site of the Veterans Administration Medical Center—to today’s gleaming academic medical center near downtown Miami is full of stories of courage, ingenuity, and an overriding dedication to public service. Those stories will be revisited, decade by decade, at the medical school’s 50th anniversary celebration this winter.

What hasn’t changed over the years is the commitment of faculty and students.

“What made it work at the beginning were phenomenal personalities,” Fogel says. “The people who brought about the medical school had to be extremely gutsy.” They shared a vision that inspired many of them to leave good jobs at well-established medical schools for the opportunity to make something happen from the ground up—in an intriguing part of the world.

“Miami worked its magic, and the medical school attracted top-notch full professors,” recalls medical school pioneer Dewitt C. Daughtry, M.D., for whom the Department of Surgery is named. “Many were assistant professors and associate professors at the greatest medical centers around the country who saw in Miami the opportunity for more rapid career advancement at the fledgling medical school.”

John G. Clarkson, M.D., senior vice president for medical affairs and dean, often talks about the vision of Ed Norton, M.D., UM’s first chair of ophthalmology. “At age 35 he left Cornell to come down here to start a new department,” says Clarkson, Norton’s successor as ophthalmology chair. “His colleagues must have thought he was going to the back country. But he saw the opportunity for growth of a school of medicine in a community that was going to grow.”

Getting a medical school started in Miami for Norton and Daughtry and their colleagues to build was no small feat. For several years legislative support leaned toward funding a school at the University of Florida in Gainesville. But UM President Bowman Foster Ashe envisioned an alliance with Jackson Memorial Hospital that could create a medical hub for all of Latin America. He enlisted many influential partners in support of this dream—none more committed than state Senator R. Bunn Gautier. Capitalizing on UM’s growing training and research relationship with the Veterans Administration, Gautier finally secured state funding for a medical school in Miami.

“Bunn Gautier really was the father of the medical school,” Foote says. “He understood the interplay between doctors and scientists and a community that needed a medical center. He understood a great American institution. Helping to create such an institution is a privilege few people have. He did it with excitement and great fun always.”

Gautier’s dedication to the medical school and the entire University never waned. “He still had a world of advice to give a young university president” in the 1980s, Foote says. “And I remember visiting him at the medical center when his days were numbered. All he wanted to talk about was the medical school and how things were going.”

That enthusiasm, tenacity, and faith in the mission were shared by many of the earliest faculty members, recalls Fogel, who graduated in 1961. “The teachers really were committed to the students, working to get the best from them, pushing them to perform on national tests that would give credibility to the school.” A similar determination to help the fledgling institution succeed created “a tremendous esprit de corps” among the students, Fogel says—“maybe because we dressed like we were at the Naval Academy.”

Norton and such distinguished colleagues as Harvey Blank, M.D., founding chairman of dermatology, jumped at the chance to create their own departments and to help make Jackson a great teaching hospital serving a growing region. “I think how grateful I am to those pioneers who took a chance and risked their own careers to come to a community that was not recognized for medical care like the communities they came from,” says Clarkson, who received a UM medical degree in 1968. “The 50th anniversary is an opportunity to celebrate the beginning and the extraordinary set of circumstances that allowed this to happen.”

That beginning in the 1950s, the tremendous growth that followed in the decades through today, and a look into the future will be the focus of an anniversary symposium at the School of Medicine on Friday afternoon, January 31. Clarkson, Fogel, University President Donna E. Shalala, Ph.D.—who, like Foote, calls the excellence of the School of Medicine central to her decision to come to Miami—and other faculty members and alumni will tell the school’s remarkable story.

The story is remarkable in large part because of what has been accomplished in such a comparatively short time. As Fogel says of the much older U.S. medical schools that share high clinical and research rankings with UM, “A 200-year head start is substantial.”

It was never easy. Dean Homer F. Marsh said in 1957, Fogel’s first year as a student, “During the last four years, the medical school has rapidly outgrown its physical quarters at the Coral Gables site and in the hospital. In excess of 200 faculty, students, and staff occupy the Coral Gables building, probably making for a greater per capita, per square foot occupancy than any other medical school.

“Indeed, we have almost come to the ridiculous position of having to look askance at any new occupant who weighs more than 150 pounds.”

In Foote’s view, it is hard to overstate the magnitude of the change at the medical school in the past few decades. One of the factors that lured him to UM from Washington University was the profound transition under way, from an institution whose importance was largely local and regional to one recognized nationally and internationally.

“What attracted me to the job was the chance to be part of something genuinely exciting and quite rare,” Foote says. “It is not every day that a medical school or any human institution moves from being a good and solid local place to being one of the best in the Republic.”

Fogel has seen that transition from every view. His perspective changed to that of a faculty member in pediatrics in 1966. He sees the establishment of a center for specialized care of newborns as characteristic of the institution’s pioneering approach, and illustrative of the challenge of making facilities serviceable for patients.

“The nursery was painted green, and we were trying to see if babies were jaundiced,” Fogel remembers. “I went out and bought white paint, and managed to get adequate lighting. You did what you had to do, fixing up the place so you could take care of patients better.

“If this is a great medical center, a primary reason is that the faculty pushed the public hospital to do everything important—trauma, burn care, etc.,” he says. “The faculty pushed and pushed to make Jackson a great hospital.”

The relationship with Jackson and the Public Health Trust put the medical school—“the only act in town,” Fogel calls it—at the center of care for a huge, diverse population with disproportionate numbers living at the lowest socioeconomic levels. And that has been an enormously effective tool for recruiting faculty and students.

“You got to understand the ills of humanity while simultaneously being exposed to all the diseases you needed to learn about,” Fogel says. “All in an environment where we could do research on all of those diseases, with no competition. What more could a medical school ask for?”

Public service has always been central to the medical school’s mission. “The University is the big player in the provision of health care for the uninsured, in high-quality specialty care, in cutting-edge care,” President Shalala says. “Who you are, what your income is, where you live ought not determine the quality of your health care.”

That commitment drives students from the time they arrive at the medical center. “Our students really have a focus on getting out into the community and giving back,” Clarkson says. The Association of American Medical Colleges presented its first-ever Award for Community Service to the medical school in 1993.

Foote considers South Florida a major attraction for medical students. “The unique complexity of our community presents all kinds of problems, but it also provides opportunities that are boundless,” Foote says. “The partnership between UM and Jackson means a lot to our students. They get caught up very quickly in the importance of the place.”

In the 1960s, for instance, the medical school responded aggressively to the needs of the thousands of Cubans who sought refuge in Miami—in part by helping exile doctors pass the exam for certification.

Later, in the midst of creating centers that would soon reach world-class status—among them the Diabetes Research Institute, the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, and The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis—the medical school joined the Public Health Trust in confronting the overwhelming challenges of the Mariel boatlift and Hurricane Andrew.

“The changing community delivered its needy at the door of the University,” Foote recalls—and the University always responded in force. “UM/Jackson will always be the place that worries the longest and the most every day about the sick and the poor in this community.”

Christine Morris is executive director of media relations for the School of Medicine. Photography by Donna Victor and School of Medicine photo archives.
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