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Our History

John Beale Davidge
John Beale Davidge - First Dean

The University of Maryland School of Medicine is America's oldest public medical school. In fact, of the nation's medical schools, only four are older: Penn, Harvard, Columbia and Dartmouth.

To appreciate the atmosphere in which the institution was created, it is necessary to go back to the end of the 18th century. Baltimore was a prosperous harbor city of 40,000 people. When combined with the general lack of sanitation, the city had a deadly side. Malaria, typhoid fever, cholera, yellow fever and other devastating communicable diseases contributed to an average lifespan of 34 years. One third of infants died. What's more, the kitchen knife was a common surgical tool.

Exasperated with the unskilled charlatans in town who proclaimed themselves doctors, a group of physicians and scientists, trained primarily in Europe, began teaching students in their homes. They included John Beale Davidge, James Cocke and James Shaw. Davidge and Cocke held medical degrees, while Shaw had attended medical lectures around the world and taught chemistry.

In 1807, with financial support from colleagues, Davidge built an anatomical theater behind his Saratoga Street home. The classes were popular with students but short-lived. On the night of November 21, a mob demolished the structure to protest the use of cadavers during anatomy lectures. This was not a new conflict. In 1801 and 1802, the state denied the medical community's requests to establish a medical school, thus providing legislative protection. But within a month of the incident at Dr. Davidge's home, the legislature approved a bill creating the College of Medicine of Maryland. Its independent board of regents was charged with educating Maryland's physicians, and the members elected Dr. Davidge dean of the faculty. 

Davidge Hall Drawing
Davidge Hall

The Founding Act authorized a lottery, in lieu of a tax, to raise up to $40,000 for a building, but it was never implemented. Instead, fund-raising came primarily from the faculty, and a parcel of land was purchased "far out in the country" in view of the Patapsco River. The College Building on Lombard Street was eventually renamed Davidge Hall in honor of the first dean and person most responsible for its construction. The building has been used continuously for medical education longer than any other in the northern hemisphere and is a designated National Historic Landmark. 

Harsh Realities

Clinical instruction was primarily at the bedside of patients at the Baltimore Almshouse, a workhouse and infirmary for the poor on Howard Street, now the location of UMMC Midtown Campus. Lectures continued in physicians' homes, but other buildings were used with less success. Chemistry classes were taught in the old schoolhouse on Fayette Street, but the roof leaked so badly that in the winter the chemicals froze. For a brief time, a ballroom on Commerce Street was available without charge between noon and 2 p.m.

The first class - five students - graduated in 1810. Two years later, the school was re-chartered as the University of Maryland, the first public university created on the foundation of a private medical college. It also was the founding institution of what is now the public University System of Maryland.

By 1812, the need for a school of medicine building was critical. The Founding Act authorized a lottery to raise capital funds, but it was never implemented. Instead, the faculty once again rose to the occasion and secured $40,000 for College Building on land owned by John Eager Howard. The structure has been used continuously for medical education longer than any other in the northern hemisphere and is a National Historic Landmark. In 1958, it was re-named for Dr. Davidge.

As the decades accumulated, so did the milestones. In 1823, the school was the first in the nation to open a hospital for resident training. The University of Maryland Medical Center is now on the site. Other historical "firsts" include a preventive medicine course, a curriculum requiring anatomical dissection, teaching women's diseases and obstetrics as separate subjects, and a clinic for children.