The ‘New’ Medical Center

In the early 20th century, a “new” medical center was created for Washington University largely due to the efforts of two men: Abraham Flexner and Robert Brookings. With funding from the Carnegie Foundation, Flexner traveled to 155 medical schools throughout the United States and Canada between 1908 and 1910. His goal was to assess each institution he visited by reporting on its condition and quality. He found most of the institutions had poor facilities, shoddy equipment, low admission standards and unqualified instructors. With only a few exceptions, he deemed nearly all of the 155 schools inadequate to educate medical students.

In 1910, Flexner published his findings in a report titled “Medical Education in the United States and Canada.”  Now known simply as the “Flexner Report,” this famous exposé on medical education was divided into two parts. In the first section, Flexner explained the current medical education environment and his vision for how to improve it. It was the second section, however, that made his report infamous. There he provided individual reports on each of the 155 medical schools he visited. His critiques were methodical and harsh.

The Flexner Report was so critical, and so influential, that many medical schools closed down shortly after his findings were made public. By 1920, just ten years after it was published, there were only 85 medical schools operating in the United States. By 1935, there were only 66 remaining – less than half the number of schools Flexner had evaluated.

Washington University did not escape Flexner’s criticism. Flexner was initially very disparaging of the university’s medical school, saying, “The medical department was a little better than the worst I had seen elsewhere, but absolutely inadequate in every essential respect.” That came as a surprise to Robert Brookings, the president of the university’s board of directors.

After learning of Flexner’s criticisms, Brookings demanded to meet with Flexner in person. Flexner returned to the university in 1910 to go over his recommendations point-by-point. The meeting between Brookings and Flexner would prove to be very significant. Having seen the best and the worst, Flexner was able to tell Brookings exactly how to create a state-of-the-art school of medicine. Brookings had the vision, determination, influence and connections to make it happen.

In the aftermath of the Flexner Report, Washington University’s medical department went through a period of major reorganization, replacing nearly all of the existing staff. In accordance with Flexner’s personal recommendations, Brookings recruited outstanding scientists and physicians who were able to devote themselves to medical education full-time. Additionally, the university embarked on plans to move the medical school out of downtown St. Louis to its present-day location, which included constructing all new facilities. Much of Brookings’ recruitment success was due to his promise to build an entirely new medical center, including two affiliated hospitals – Barnes Hospital and St. Louis Children’s Hospital – with newly constructed facilities beside the medical school.

Brookings donated a substantial amount of his own money to the medical school and also obtained funding from other local businessmen. Most importantly, Brookings was able to secure financial support from the Rockefeller-sponsored General Education Board.

Construction of the new medical center began in 1912 at a site on the eastern border of Forest Park. The spacious buildings were nothing like the cramped quarters downtown which had served as the medical school for the previous 20 years. Many of the buildings constructed in 1912 still form the nucleus of the present-day medical center. During the summer of 1914, laboratories were moved from downtown St. Louis to new buildings on Euclid and Kingshighway. A  formal dedication of the new medical campus was held in April 1915.