New Med Center

The "New" Medical Center

The creation of the “new” medical center at Washington University came about largely due to the efforts of two men: Abraham Flexner and Robert Brookings. With funding from the Carnegie Foundation, Flexner set out 1908 to visit 155 medical schools throughout the United States and Canada. His goal was to critique each institution he visited by reporting on the condition and quality of the schools. He found mostly institutions that were wholly inadequate – poor facilities, shoddy equipment, and unqualified instructors. To his credit, Flexner was entirely honest with his evaluations. However, this was bad news for a lot of the medical colleges he visited. In 1910, Flexner published his findings in the now famous Medical Education in the United States and Canada. Known simply as the “Flexner Report,” it was so critical, and so influential, that many medical schools closed down when his findings were published.


Aerial view of completed medical center, 1916 The North Building housed the administrative offices of the medical school, an assembly hall, the library, and the departments of preventive medicine, experimental surgery, and anatomy. The South Building housed the departments of physiology, pharmacology, and biological chemistry. The West Building was used for multiple purposes. The dispensary occupied the entire first floor and basement. The second floor housed a clinical laboratory and a pathological laboratory with a mortuary and an autopsy room. The third floor included an instruction laboratory for bacteriology and pathology as well as a large lecture room that could seat one hundred students. On land where the Cancer Research Building now stands, the original 1915 medical campus included a narrow structure housing a refectory (dining room), a bookstore, and a corridor connecting the North and South Buildings. It was demolished in 1949. The dormitory on Forest Park Boulevard contained quarters for about sixty students. The building featured a social hall in the basement. The rental price of a room in 1915 was $10.00 per month. The Nurses’ Home was located just north of Children’s Hospital on Kingshighway. The first floor included a reception room, a class room, and administrative offices. The upper floors were arranged to accommodate 80 to 90 nurses. Bathroom facilities were provided on each floor, and each room was equipped with a single bed, a sink with running water, and a closet. The Power Plant was located on the east side of Euclid Avenue next to the North Building. It provided light, heat, power, refrigeration, and compressed air to the buildings of the Medical School, as well as Barnes Hospital and Children’s Hospital.


The Medical Department of Washington University did not escape Flexner’s criticism. This came as a surprise to Robert Brookings, the president of the university’s Board of Directors. In fact, when he read Flexner’s comments on the medical school, he was so upset that he immediately left St. Louis to find Flexner so that he could demand an explanation in-person. Brookings did meet-up with Flexner, and the two returned to the university to go over point-by-point his recommendations to make the medical school better. The meeting between Brookings and Flexner would prove to be very significant. Having seen the best and the worst medical schools, Flexner told Brookings what was needed to have a state-of-the-art school of medicine. Brookings had the vision, the determination, the influence, and the connections needed to make it happen.


In the aftermath of the Flexner Report, the medical school went through a period of major reorganization. Nearly all of the existing staff was replaced. Following Flexner’s recommendations, Brookings recruited outstanding scientists and physicians who were able to devote themselves full-time to medical education. The existence of full-time faculty had not yet become commonplace among medical colleges in the United States. At the time, most of the instructors were private practitioners who taught classes on the side. Much of the reason Brookings’ recruitment efforts were successful was due to his promise to build an entirely new medical center, which helped to attract first-rate faculty.


Construction began on the new medical center at a site on the eastern border of Forest Park in 1912. These new spacious buildings were nothing like the former cramped quarters downtown which had served as the medical school for the previous 20 years. Many of the buildings featured on this page are still here today, and they form the nucleus of the present medical center. Brookings donated a very substantial portion of his own money to the medical school, and was also able to get funding from other local businessmen, and most importantly, he was able to secure financial support from the Rockefeller-sponsored General Education Board. During the summer of 1914, the laboratories were moved from their old quarters in downtown St. Louis into the new buildings on Euclid and Kingshighway. The school’s formal dedication of its new medical campus was in April 1915.