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Ahead of the curve

Some of the University of Minnesota's first medical students, including members of the first graduating class, in front of the Minnesota Hospital College circa 1889. The University used the building, located approximately where the Metrodome is today, to offer clinial experience to students. (Photo: University Archives)

The Medical School celebrates 125 years of innovative education

The hopeful student wishing to join the first medical school class at the University of Minnesota in 1888 needed little more than a high school diploma to apply. There were no national standards for medical education at the time, and the requirements for admission and subsequent graduation were regularly debated and varied between institutions.

Much has changed for the University of Minnesota Medical School — founded in 1888 as the College of Medicine and Surgery — in its 125-year existence, particularly in education.

The school’s first students trained for three academic years of six months each, enjoying summers off, before becoming doctors. They were young and roguish, playing tricks on their professors by introducing a cadaver to a faculty meeting, crowdsurfing a fellow student during class, or rioting after an unpopular lecture. The growing presence of women (there were just two in the first class) is thought to have helped to tone down this rowdy behavior.

The College of Medicine and Surgery went on to set much higher admissions standards and become a national leader in medical education. In fact, by 1910 when the seminal Flexner Report was released, Minnesota was credited as being “perhaps the first state in the union that may fairly be considered to have solved the most perplexing problems with medical education and practice.”

Elliot Memorial Hospital, the first of Minnesota’s university hospitals, was built on campus the following year. The Medical School later partnered with Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to offer the first graduate-level program for physicians. In 1917 the program issued the first-ever graduate degree in a clinical specialty.

Realizing the value of mentorship and wanting to give adequate attention to each student, by 1922 the Medical School had successfully limited class sizes, ahead of many of its peers. In 1923 the school received twice as many applications as there were spaces, and that was considered selective. Interest in attending medical school has grown considerably since then: in 2012 the Medical School accepted only 5 percent of applicants to fill 230 spaces on its Twin Cities and Duluth campuses.

In its 125-year history, the Medical School has pioneered and advanced many areas of education and will continue to do so in the future. For example, it launched the nationally lauded Rural Physician Associate Program in 1971 and is now wrapping up the third year of a metro model. Also, the school will be involved in the Academic Health Center’s new Coordinating Center for Interprofessional Education and Collaborative Practice, a national initiative to find the best ways to prepare health professional students to work in today’s fast-changing health care environment.


1888-1913 First 25 years

The University of Minnesota College of Medicine and Surgery, as it was originally named, is founded in 1888. The first graduating class of 23 students includes two women. The first black student, Walter B. Holmes, graduates in 1895. Medical education as a whole is just beginning to take shape in America. The College of Medicine and Surgery becomes the Medical School in 1913.

1913-1938 Second 25 years

With Mayo Clinic, the Medical School offers the first medical graduate school program in the nation. It awards the first-ever graduate degree for a clinical specialty on May 24, 1917. Class size is limited in the 1920s to better support student learning. Faculty members begin to approach learning and research with a distinct vision of interdisciplinary partnership. Owen Wangensteen, M.D., Ph.D., takes the reins of the Surgery Department in 1930 and encourages faculty to pursue bold new ideas.

1938-1963 Third 25 years

The University is home to huge leaps in surgical advancement, including the world’s first successful open-heart surgery in 1952. A successful kidney transplant is conducted at the University of Minnesota between twins in 1963. C. Walton Lillehei, M.D., Ph.D., and Earl Bakken (who later cofounded Medtronic, Inc.) make possible the world’s first portable, battery-operated cardiac pacemaker in 1957. K-rations, cortisone, the heart-lung machine, and the blood pump are invented.

1963-1988 Fourth 25 years

The world’s first successful bone marrow, pancreas, heart-lung, and simultaneous kidney-pancreas transplants are performed at the University of Minnesota. B. J. Kennedy, M.D., pioneers the field of medical oncology. The Medical School’s Duluth campus admits its first class in 1972. The University becomes the first in the world to use artificial blood in a patient. Microbiologist Russell Johnson, Ph.D., creates a vaccine for Lyme disease.

1988-2013 Fifth 25 years

With AT&T Bell labs, the University develops functional magnetic resonance imaging, which shows the brain in action. Karen Hsiao Ashe, M.D, Ph.D., develops the first genetically engineered mouse exhibiting Alzheimer’s disease symptoms. A University research team is the first to create a beating animal heart in the laboratory. Jakub Tolar, M.D., Ph.D., and John Wagner, M.D., are the first to use bone marrow transplantation to treat epidermolysis bullosa, a devastating skin disease, in children.

By Sarah Morean, the Medical School’s communication’s manager

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