Origins of Surgical Education at UVA

Photo of Statue of Thomas Jefferson

The University of Virginia had its beginning in the remarkably fertile mind of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s political and scientific career encompassed many interests, concerns, and capabilities which culminated in the development of the University of Virginia in his later years. After his presidency, Jefferson returned to Monticello, his home in Charlottesville, and concentrated much of his time establishing the University of Virginia, which was chartered in 1818.

Dr. Robley Dunglison was recruited from England as the first Professor of the Medical School and arrived in 1825, roughly one month before the first students appeared on campus. In 1828 the first medical school graduates were awarded degrees, which were the first degrees granted by the University. This historical moment is recognized each year when the medical school graduates lead all graduates onto The Lawn at the Final Exercises each Spring.

In 1834, after four years as the first ‘Demonstrator in Surgery,’ Thomas Johnson resigned, and Dr. Augustus Warner was appointed Professor of Anatomy and Surgery, a post he held for three years. In 1838, Dr. James Cabell (a nephew of one of the founders of The University, Joseph Cabell, for whom Cabell Hall on the South end of The Lawn is named) was appointed the first Chair of Anatomy and Surgery at the University and was the first of such Chairs to be assigned a Pavilion (Pavilion II, adjacent to the Rotunda) in which he lived until his death many years later. Dr. Cabell was Chair of Surgery at least until Dr. Paul Barringer was appointed Professor of Surgery in 1886, and Dr. Cabell seems to have remained on the faculty for a few more years for a total of about 50 years on the UVA faculty. Dr. Cabell still holds the distinction of being the longest tenured academician in an American medical school.  Of note, Dr. Cabell was also among the founding members of both the American Medical Association and the American Surgical Association. It has been said that Cabell, at least during his lifetime, was one of the best known academicians to teach at UVA in its history. (For more on Dr. Cabell, one can refer to an article about his career published in The American Surgeon, available in the UVA medical library. One can also read more details of these early days of The School of Medicine at The University of Virginia in The Alumni Bulletin of 1914 which was written by John Staige Davis, available online).

In 1889, Paul Barringer was appointed Chair of Surgery (and Richard Whitehead was appointed Demonstrator of Anatomy, which was the 1st time these two positions had been separated at The University). Dr. Barringer’s appointment is considered to mark the beginning of the ‘modern era’ of the Department of Surgery.

UVA’s First Hospital

historical photo of UVA Hospital - 1886In 1886, the first hospital was opened in Charlottesville and known as The Piedmont Hospital. Dr. Barringer foresaw the need for health facilities and worked diligently in fund raising and architectural planning for a modern hospital in Charlottesville.

Construction on the present University of Virginia Hospital started in 1900 and the first wing was completed in 1901 at a cost of approximately $50,000. In 1903, the south wing addition and, in 1907, the north wing addition of the original hospital were added. In 1907, Dr. Steven Hurt Watts became Professor of Surgery and Gynecology. Dr. Watts was the first chairman in the modern era of surgery at the University of Virginia. He had graduated from the Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1901 and received his surgical training under William Halsted. Dr. Watts headed the Department of Surgery and Gynecology for 21 years before he retired in 1928.

Growth and Expansion

2001 UVA Hospital West Wing BuildingDr. Edwin P. Lehman was Professor and Chair of Surgery from 1928 to 1953. During that period of time, the school continued to recruit faculty and expand the hospital. In 1954, Dr. William H. Muller, who had trained at Johns Hopkins under Alfred Blalock, was recruited from UCLA to chair the department. During his tenure as chairman, the hospital and medical school essentially doubled in size with the addition of a new multistory building and library space within the Medical School. Dr. Muller’s chairmanship at the University of Virginia culminated in his appointment as Vice-President for Health Affairs where he oversaw the construction of the present University of Virginia complex and the development of the Health Sciences Center. Dr. Muller was president of the American College of Surgeons in 1976.

In 1982, Dr. R. Scott Jones was recruited from Duke University as the Stephen H. Watts Professor and Chair of the Department of Surgery. During Dr. Jones’s tenure, programs continued to grow and develop. These programs had a record of excellence at the University including cardiothoracic, vascular, oncology, and general surgical with specific emphasis in gastrointestinal disease. Additionally, many new programs including the development of a Level I Trauma Center, critical care programs, solid organ transplantation, and endocrine surgery were developed and continued to grow.

Into the 21st Century

View of the UVA Medical Center from BelmontDr. Irving Kron became only the seventh Chair of the Department of Surgery on January 1, 2002, continuing a remarkable tradition of stability in the Department. Dr. Kron received his general surgical training at Maine Medical Center and cardiac surgical training at UVA. His laboratory has been funded by the NIH and the American Heart Association for fifteen years.

Dr. Jones was President of the American College of Surgeons from 2002 to 2003. Dr. Edward Laws, from the Department of Neurosurgery was President of the American College of Surgeons from 2006 to 2007.  Dr. Muller was president of the American College of Surgeons in 1976, making UVA one of the few academic centers in the world to have three faculty members serve as president of the College.

Currently the Department of Surgery recruits five categorical residents for a five year program which includes the options for two additional years in the research laboratories. The Department of Surgery currently has seven divisions: Cardiothoracic, Vascular Surgery, General Surgery, Surgical Oncology, Pediatric SurgeryTransplant Surgery, and Trauma/Acute Care Surgery.  The Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery offers two residency positions each year. Additionally, fellowships are available in Transplant Surgery, Laparoscopic Surgery, Surgical Critical Care, and Vascular Surgery. All faculty members are full-time faculty on tenure tracks with interests both in clinical research and bench research. All faculty hold joint appointments at the Salem VA Hospital and many are consultants in nearby regional hospitals including the Martha Jefferson Hospital and the Augusta Medical Center.