A Brief History of Vanderbilt University

Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt made his fortune in shipping and railroads. His $1 million gift transformed the College to Vanderbilt University in 1873 was his only major philanthropy. It came about after Methodist Bishop. McTyeire of Nashville, a cousin of the Commodore’s second wife, went to New York for medical treatment early in 1873 and spent time recovering in the Vanderbilt mansion. He won the Commodore’s admiration and support for the project of building a university in the South that would “contribute to strengthening the ties which should exist between all sections of our common country.”

McTyeire chose the site for the campus, supervised the construction of buildings and personally planted many of the trees that today make Vanderbilt a veritable Arboretum. At the outset, the University consisted of one Main Building (now Kirkland Hall), an astronomy observatory and houses for professors. Landon C. Garland was Vanderbilt’s first Chancellor, serving from 1875 to 1893. James H. Kirkland followed Chancellor Garland., and was the longest serving Chancellor in University history (1893-1937), From the outset, Vanderbilt met two definitions of a university: It offered work in the liberal arts and sciences beyond the baccalaureate degree and it embraced several professional schools in addition to its college.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center began in 1874 when the School of Medicine, which had been part of the University of Nashville since it’s founding in 1851, was incorporated into Vanderbilt University. The first degree awarded by this new University, in 1875, went to Henry William Morgan, and was a medical degree.

For many years of its existence, Vanderbilt’s medical school and hospital were located near downtown Nashville. During this time, the School of Medicine was owned and operated as a private property of the practicing physicians who made up the faculty and received the fees of the students—a system that, while not ideal, was typical of medical education in the U.S. at the time.
In 1895, the School of Medicine was reorganized under the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust. William L. Dudley, who was professor of Chemistry in the college of Arts and Sciences, was appointed medical dean; admission requirements were raised to require a high school diploma; the course was lengthened to three years of six months each; and laboratory work in the basic sciences was added to the curriculum. At that time, Vanderbilt was one of four medical schools in Nashville, joined by the University of Nashville, which again separated from Vanderbilt in 1895, the University of Tennessee, and Meharry Medical College.
In the 1950s Vanderbilt began to outgrow its provincial roots and to measure its achievements by national standards under the leadership of Chancellor Harvie Branscomb (1946-63). During his term as Chancellor, full-time student enrollment reached a then-record level, even as test scores and grades continued to rise. The University became a more diverse institution as students from around the country were drawn to Vanderbilt, and in 1952 the University opened its doors to minority students before the other private universities in the South did so.

By the time of Branscomb’s retirement, the number of full-time faculty had doubled, faculty salaries had almost tripled (in current dollars) and the number of buildings on campus had more than doubled. The University’s annual budget increased by more than 400 percent, and the endowment increased from $38 million in 1946 to $88 million in 1963 (market value). He rebuilt the Medical School, which had been re commended for closure but became one of the outstanding institutions in the nation.

By its 90th anniversary in 1963, Vanderbilt for the first time ranked in the top 20 private universities in the United States. The original Vanderbilt campus consisted of 75 acres but by 1960, the campus had increased to about 260 acres of land. When George Peabody College for Teachers merged with Vanderbilt in 1979, about 53 acres were added.

The 1910 Flexner report was taken to heart by Dr. Canby Robinson, who was appointed Dean of the School of Medicine in 1920. Flexner had visited Nashville on at least 3 occasions, in 1909, 1914, and 1919, initially as a part of a nationwide survey of medical schools for the Carnegie Foundation. During these visits he struck up what was to be a long standing warm relationship with Chancellor Kirkland. A gift of $1M from the Carnegie Foundation in 1913 helped the University financially as they had just severed ties with the Methodist Church. With a broad educational vision, and support from friends at Johns Hopkins, Kirkland was able in 1919 to get a $4 M gift from the Rockefeller Foundation, which enormously enhanced the stature of Vanderbilt. Funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation allowed the School of Medicine to relocate to a new building on the Vanderbilt main campus that housed not only the school, but the hospital, outpatient clinics, laboratory, and library. That building survives as Medical Center North, although most of its original functions have since relocated to newer dedicated buildings.

One of the Vanderbilt Medical School’s first major research grants was received in 1932 from the Rockefeller Foundation. The $250,000 earmarked for clinical research was administered by a faculty committee. Many significant clinical research developments in American medicine during this era came from Vanderbilt:

  • In 1933, Dr. Alfred Blalock and his research assistant Vivien Thomas conducted pioneering research leading to the first cardiothoracic surgery for infants born with “blue baby syndrome.” Blalock’s work was essential to the development of open heart surgery.
  • In the early 1940s, Dr. Ernest Goodpasture, who became Dean in 1944, developed the method of culturing vaccines in chick embryos, which allowed the mass production of vaccines for smallpox, typhus, and yellow fever.

In this era, Dr. Amos U. Christie, chair of Pediatrics, led a team that achieved worldwide notice for pioneering work in histoplasmosis.

A series of grants from the U.S. Public Health Service led in 1960, to the establishment of the federally funded Clinical Research Center. In 1971, Dr. Earl Sutherland was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, thereby serving notice that the Medical Center’s research mission was on a par with its patient care and education missions. Dr. Stanley Cohen received a Nobel Prize in 1986, and shared the award with Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini of Italy for their discovery of epidermal growth factor.

By 2007, Vanderbilt had further progressed in many areas. Vanderbilt is ranked #19 Nationally. More details are provided by the wikipedia link.

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