One of the nation’s premier academic health centers, Vanderbilt University Medical Center traces its lineage to the University of Nashville and to Shelby Medical College. The latter institution, open only a brief time (1858-61), was established by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, to provide medical education for a proposed “Central University.” Shelby Medical College closed during the Civil War, and the Methodists did not renew their plans for Central University until 1872. Subsequently, the name was changed to Vanderbilt University to reflect the million-dollar gift from railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt.
In 1874 the medical department of the University of Nashville was merged with that of the fledgling Vanderbilt University, providing Vanderbilt with instant recognition and securing the continuation of the medical school through the new university’s ample endowment. In 1875, in the first graduating class of seventy-one students, ten elected to receive diplomas from the University of Nashville, thirteen received Vanderbilt diplomas, and the remainder requested diplomas from both. Gradually, however, the majority of students matriculated in the name of Vanderbilt University.
In 1893 James H. Kirkland assumed the post of Chancellor of Vanderbilt University. In 1895, in response to an offer from Kirkland, the medical faculty agreed upon a new contract that would negate the joint agreement with the University of Nashville and bring the medical school under the control of the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust. A similar initiative by Kirkland in 1914 led to a court battle which granted the institution complete independence from the Methodist Church. Kirkland raised standards at Vanderbilt; in 1900, the medical course was increased from three to four years. Requirements for admission gradually rose from a high school education to a full year of college work.
These and other innovations paid off handsomely with the 1910 release of the Flexnor Report, a nationwide evaluation of medical training institutions. The report declared Vanderbilt’s medical department best suited among Tennessee medical colleges to administer a course of study. The report recognized a number of deficiencies, however, including lack of laboratory space and equipment and lack of a full-time preclinical faculty. In response to these inadequacies, Kirkland negotiated a $4 million grant from the General Education Board in 1919 to reorganize the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
Located in downtown Nashville, the School of Medicine remained geographically isolated from the main campus. C. Canby Robinson, appointed Dean of the School of Medicine in 1920, urged that the reorganized school be placed on the West campus. Robinson’s innovative vision of a teaching institution and operating hospital employed the Osler-Halstead formula developed at Johns Hopkins University: a corps of full-time teachers backed by a larger, carefully selected clinical faculty. Robinson established three original departments at Vanderbilt–medicine, surgery, and obstetrics and gynecology–and three laboratories–physiological, infectious disease, and chemical. Ground was broken for the new building in October 1923, and the school opened in 1925. The faculty, house staff, volunteer faculty, and students soon established Vanderbilt’s reputation for excellence in teaching, clinical research, and laboratory research. Seven of Vanderbilt’s medical faculty later served as presidents of the American Medical Association.
Since World War II, Vanderbilt Medical Center has undergone numerous expansions facilitated by federal grants, an innovative faculty, and the progressive evolution of subspecialization in both clinical disciplines and basic sciences. Construction on the Learned Laboratories, which allowed additional space for graduate work, was begun in 1952 and completed in 1960. A circular hospital wing was added in 1962. The Joe and Howard Werthan Building, a new library, and laboratory space were built on Twenty-first Avenue South. In 1977 Rudolph Light Hall was completed on the south side of Garland Avenue to provide classroom and laboratory space for medical students.
Vanderbilt Medical Center continued to expand in the 1980s. A twin-towered Vanderbilt University Hospital, with space dedicated for the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, opened in 1980. In 1985 the Vanderbilt School of Nursing was brought under the aegis of the Medical Center. That year the Psychiatric Hospital at Vanderbilt, a joint operation with Columbia/HCA, was completed. A new outpatient center, the Vanderbilt Clinic, opened in 1988. New medical research buildings were constructed in 1989 and 1994. In the latter year, the Vanderbilt Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital, a joint enterprise with HealthSouth, was dedicated, and the Annette and Irwin Eskind Biomedical Library opened. In late 1997 Vanderbilt University Medical Center unveiled plans for a new Children’s Hospital.
Today, Vanderbilt University Medical Center continues to enjoy regional, national, and international renown. Two faculty members, Earl Sutherland Jr. in 1971 and Stanley Cohen in 1986, have been recognized as Nobel Laureates.