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Tom Chaney R749: The Story of UK College of Medicine

Of Writers and Their Books No. R749, a review of A Medical School is Born: A History of the Conception, Gestation, and Infancy of the University of Kentucky College of Medicine By One Who Assisted in the Delivery by Robert Straus. First appeared 11 February 2007.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column 7
: Kentucky Justice, Southern Honor, and American Manhood: Understanding the Life and Death of Richard Reid

By Tom Chaney

The evolution of a dream

How a dream becomes reality is always an interesting study. With whom does the dream originate? How does the dreamer persuade others to share the dream? When the dream becomes reality, how does it mature? Where does the original dreamer fit in?

In 1996 Robert Straus took time to examine the thirty-year realization of the dream of a new medical school for Kentuckians in his book A Medical School is Born: A History of the Conception, Gestation, and Infancy of the University of Kentucky College of Medicine By One Who Assisted in the Delivery [McClanahan Publishing House, 1996].

The long subtitle is more than just a clever metaphor, for dreams are much like babies. The seed is planted. It develops to birth. Once the delivery is complete, the dream grows from the planted seed developing along lines which transcend the original dreamer and takes on a life of its own.

In 1956 Kentucky Governor A. B. Chandler proposed to the legislature that a new college of medicine be established at The University of Kentucky in Lexington.

Many Kentuckians opposed the idea. The state had a medical college in Louisville -- then not a part of the state university system. Kentucky was and is a poor state with its resources stretched to the breaking point. But Chandler saw beyond the tight budgets, beyond regional rivalries to a serious need for rural Kentuckians to have better health care.

Some political dreamers don't have a clear vision. I am reminded of a story told by Alan Trout about an early 20th Century legislator from Greenup County. His sole issue in his race for office was to bring a new college to Greenup to match Morehead State College recently established in the neighboring county of Rowan.

The legislator was a Democrat. When he took his seat in Frankfort he sat on his hands, refusing to vote on any issue until he got his college. Finally, his vote was needed, and the party whip asked what it would take to get him to support his party on a crucial issue.

"There ain't but one thing that'll get my vote," the gentleman from Greenup replied. "I want me a college like they got over in Morehead."

The whip took thought. He knew his man.

"I promise you we'll get that college," stated the whip, "but there are a couple of things you need to know. Are you aware that the college in Morehead has a curriculum?"

"Naw! Does it really?" answered the man from Greenup.

"Yes," said the whip. "And what's more, over in Morehead the boys and girls matriculate together."

"Well, we can't have nothing like that in Greenup!" and he voted the party line from then on.

In the case of the medical school, Chandler's dream struck fire with legislators. In 1956 the General Assembly appropriated an initial five million dollars toward the establishment of the Medical Center at the University of Kentucky.

But the vision was not new. As early as 1928 university president Frank McVey had seen the need and had begun the planning. The depression intervened. A promised ten million dollar grant from a Lexington horseman evaporated with the crash of the stock market the following year.

Following the appropriation, the first step was to find a medical educator to provide direction and leadership for the project. The man chosen was Dr. William R. Willard whose "earlier career reflected the philosophy, convictions, and leadership qualities that would mold the College of Medicine through the years of planning and initial activation."

Willard insisted that he be given adequate time and resources for planning. "He wanted to study the existing conditions and social need of Kentucky" and to consult widely on matters of direction.

Planning began both for the elements of medical education and for the facilities and staff to implement the dream. The College of Medicine admitted its first class four years later in 1960 -- a gestation period somewhat longer than that of an elephant.

As the infant passed through childhood and approached its tenth year major changes were occurring in the financing of medical care which imposed new directions on medical education and care.

By 1990 many of the "concerns about medical care and the education of physicians . . . had come full circle. The fresh perspectives of a new generation of faculty and leadership have led to a revitalization of many of the College's originally unique objectives. . . . Once again Kentucky is a recognized leader in medical education innovation."

Dr. Straus speaks from a unique position. He was one of the original innovators brought to Lexington by Willard in 1956. He not only assisted in the delivery, but also continued as a specialist in the trials of the infancy and adolescence of the medical school.

His account focuses primarily on the birth and the first ten years of the school -- through 1970. A Medical School is Born is not only an interesting, readable account of establishment of an innovative medical college and hospital. It is also an incisive account of the realization of a dream and of how that dream took on its own life well beyond the lives of those who conceived it.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-02-12 06:42:47
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