The History of the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons

For more than 250 years, the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (P&S) has pioneered medical education, research, and patient care at Columbia University. Our institution was the first in the North American Colonies to confer the degree of Doctor of Medicine. Our faculty have conducted groundbreaking research over the centuries, from outlining Huntington's disease to identifying cystic fibrosis to developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution—an effort that earned one of our faculty members the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2017. More than a century ago, our alliance with Presbyterian Hospital helped to pave the way for the creation of a new medical center format, one that provides patient care, research, and education under the same roof for the benefit of the New York City community and the world beyond. View our timeline to learn more about the milestones in our history. 

Milestones at P&S

  • 1754

    Columbia University is founded as King's College.

    King's College circa 1770

    King's College circa 1777

    Columbia University begins as King's College by royal grant of George II of England "for the instruction of youth in the Learned Languages, and the Liberal Arts and Sciences."

  • 1767

    King's College establishes second medical school in the 13 colonies.

    King's College organized a medical faculty in 1767 and was the first institution in the North American Colonies to confer the degree of Doctor of Medicine.

  • 1770

    King's College awards first MD in the 13 American Colonies.

    Diploma

    The first graduates in medicine are Robert Tucker and Samuel Kissarn, who receive the degree of Bachelor of Medicine in May 1769, and Doctor of Medicine in May 1770 and May 1771, respectively. 

  • 1771

    First teaching hospital is founded in New York.

    In 1771, Dr. Samuel Bard and Dr. John Jones co-found the New York Hospital in lower Manhattan. This is the first teaching hospital in New York.

  • 1784

    King’s College reopens as Columbia College after the Revolutionary War.

    King's College circa 1790
  • 1807

    The College of Physicians and Surgeons (P&S) is founded by charter.

  • 1814

    Medical faculty of Columbia College merges with P&S.

    Dr. Samuel Bard oversees the merger of Columbia College and P&S, which had obtained an independent charter in 1807. 

  • 1861

    Civil War impacts P&S.

    Civil War Field Office Station

    P&S grants a leave to Dr. John C. Dalton Jr. to join the U.S. Army Medical Corps during the Civil War. He remains with the army until 1864, serving in military operations in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, where he is responsible for the health of thousands of soldiers. A total of 409 P&S alumni served in the Civil War.

  • 1872

    George Huntington, MD, first outlines Huntington's disease.

    George Huntington

    George Huntington'1871 publishes the article, “On Chorea,” outlining the symptoms and progression of a degenerative neurological condition that becomes known as Huntington’s chorea, or Huntington’s disease.

  • 1884

    William Henry Vanderbilt donates land for P&S.

    William Henry Vanderbilt donates land on 59th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues (now Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues) and $300,000 for a new building for P&S, making the largest gift to a medical school up to that time.

  • 1911

    Harkness gift launches partnership between Columbia and Presbyterian Hospital.

    The agreement signed by Columbia and Presbyterian Hospital establishes a model that is replicated by major institutions around the world, in which facilities dedicated to patient care, medical education, and research share a location.  

  • 1917

    P&S begins admitting women for the first time.

    The first six women graduate in 1921. Since then, women have shaped medicine at P&S.

  • 1928

    Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center is dedicated in Washington Heights.

    Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, the world’s first medical center to combine complete facilities for patient care, medical education, and research in a single complex, is dedicated on Oct. 12, 1928 in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City.

  • 1935

    Whipple procedure is pioneered by Allen Whipple, MD.

    Allen Whipple

    Dr. Allen O. Whipple'1908 pioneers the pancreaticoduodenectomy, a complex procedure to remove pancreatic tumors. Now known as the Whipple procedure, the operation is reportedly devised on the spot, when Dr. Whipple realizes a patient with a gastric condition actually has pancreatic cancer.

  • 1938

    Cystic fibrosis is identified by Dorothy Andersen, MD.

    Dr. Dorothy Andersen

    Dorothy Andersen, MD, professor of pathology, is the first to recognize the disease cystic fibrosis in 1938 and helps to create a test to identify it. Building on Dr. Anderson's work, Dr. Paul di Sant’Agnese'48 develops the noninvasive, and now standard, “sweat test” for cystic fibrosis in 1953, when he recognizes salt loss as the cause of death in patients during a New York City heat wave. Pictured is Dr. Andersen in 1961, holding a cystic fibrosis patient as she receives a check to further her research from Victor Blitzer, president of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

  • 1939

    Treatment for lethal meningitis is developed by Hattie E. Alexander, MD.

    Dr. Hattie E. Alexander

    Hattie E. Alexander, MD, faculty member in the Department of Pediatrics, develops the first effective treatment for a lethal form of bacterial meningitis caused by Haemophilus influenza. Infants and children with this condition nearly always died until the development of her anti-serum, which results in an 80 percent recovery rate.

  • 1940

    Charles Drew develops a method to preserve and store blood plasma.

    As a graduate student at Columbia, Charles Drew'40 identifies an efficient way to process and store large quantities of blood plasma, leading to the Blood for Britain program in World War II that helps to save thousands of lives. His discovery, the foundation of modern blood banking, transforms the practice of emergency medicine. Dr. Drew is the first African-American to receive a Doctor of Medical Science from Columbia. 

  • 1943

    Bacitracin is developed at P&S.

    P&S laboratory supervisor Balbina Johnson

    P&S laboratory supervisor Balbina Johnson makes a curious observation while studying a culture of Bacillus subtilis taken from a 7-year-old girl. During an initial microscope exam, she observes Staphylococcus aureus in the culture but then it disappears overnight. Follow-up research with surgery professor Frank L. Meleney'1916 isolates the microbe responsible for destroying the staph bacteria and leads to the development of a new antibiotic. The medicine called bacitracin, or “bacillus of Tracy,” is named for the patient who inspires its discovery. Bacitracin is an ideal topical agent for infections that, until then, required surgery. It remains the most common ingredient in over-the-counter antibiotic ointments.

  • 1946

    Benjamin Spock, MD, publishes “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care.”

    Benjamin Spock's Common Sense Book

    Publication of “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” turns Dr. Benjamin Spock'29 into a popular authority on parenting—and a global celebrity. His book is dramatically different from past child-rearing manuals, which recommend discipline and strict feeding schedules, and instead offers parents the reassurance to trust their instincts and love their children, as well as basic, medically-informed health advice. The book becomes an influential, best-selling guide for parents.

  • 1947

    Elvin Kabat, PhD, identifies multiple sclerosis as an autoimmune disorder.

    For his contributions to immunology and immunochemistry, Elvin Kabat, PhD, receives the National Medal of Science in 1991.

  • 1952

    Arthur Voorhees'46 develops the first successful artificial arteries.

  • 1953

    Virginia Apgar, MD, publishes a simple 10-point scoring method for predicting infant health at birth.

    Virginia Apgar

    The Apgar score measures five body functions to determine the need for life-saving assistance within 60 seconds of birth and remains the international standard for assessing newborn health. It is named for Virginia Apgar'33, who served on the faculty from 1935 to 1959 and was the first woman appointed to a full professorship at P&S.

  • 1956

    André F. Cournand and Dickinson W. Richards win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

    André F. Cournand and Dickinson W. Richards

    André F. Cournand and Dickinson W. Richards, MD1923

    P&S faculty members André F. Cournand and Dickinson W. Richards'23 win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, shared with German scientist Werner Forssmann, for the development of cardiac catheterization, laying the groundwork for open-heart surgery and interventional cardiology. Catheterization entails inserting a small tube into the heart and provides physicians with a powerful new tool to diagnose disease and study the human circulatory system, launching a conceptual merger of the heart and lung into a single organ.

  • 1964

    Columbia researchers pioneer a vaccine that helps to eradicate Rh disease in newborns.

    Dr. Vincent Freda and Dr. John Gorman

    Rh disease is a form of hemolytic disease of the fetus and newborn that once claimed the lives of nearly 10,000 babies a year in the United States. In the 1960s, Vincent Freda, MD, an obstetrician, and John Gorman, MD, director of the blood bank at Columbia, pioneer a vaccine that effectively eradicates the disease in newborn children. They receive the 1980 Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award in recognition of their work. Read more.

  • 1979

    Nancy Wexler, PhD, leads effort to identify Huntington’s disease gene.

    Nancy Wexler

    Nancy Wexler, PhD, Higgins Professor of Neuropsychology, begins extensive research on families in Venezuela affected by Huntington’s disease, collecting and analyzing thousands of blood samples. Her work leads to the identification of the gene responsible for the disease in 1993.

  • 1984

    Columbia surgeon performs first successful pediatric heart transplant.

    Pediatric heart transplant recipient, 4-year old J.P. Lovette IV, and his parents.

    Surgeon Eric Rose'75 performs the first successful pediatric heart transplant at Columbia. Pictured are the transplant recipient, 4-year-old J.P. Lovette IV, and his parents. Pediatric heart transplants are now standard, with more than 100 performed at Columbia each year.

  • 1993

    Columbia holds first White Coat Ceremony.

    First White Coat Ceremony at P&S, 1993

    The Arnold P. Gold Foundation inaugurates the first White Coat Ceremony ceremony at P&S as a rite of passage that cloaks each medical student in his or her first white coat.

  • 1998

    Angela Christiano, PhD, discovers first human gene associated with hair loss.

    Columbia researchers identify gene for inherited baldness. Read more

  • 2000

    Eric Kandel, MD, wins the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

    Book cover for In Search of Memory by Eric Kandel

    Eric Kandel, MD, University Professor of Physiology and Cell Biophysics, Psychiatry, Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, wins the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, shared with Arvid Carlsson and Paul Greengard, for contributions to the field of neuroscience, in particular their work on the molecular basis of memory.

  • 2004

    Richard Axel, MD, wins the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

    Richard Axel

    Richard Axel, MD, University Professor, wins the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, shared with Linda B. Buck, PhD, for determining the genes that govern the sense of smell. He is pictured with postdoc Allan Wong, PhD, in the 2-photon imaging room of the Axel lab.

  • 2016

    NIH awards precision medicine grant.

    A $4 million NIH grant gives Columbia, Weill Cornell Medicine, NewYork-Presbyterian, and NYC Health + Hospitals/Harlem a key role in a precision medicine cohort program. Read more

  • June 2016

    The Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center is officially dedicated.

    Vagelos Education Center

    The Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center, named for P. Roy Vagelos'54 and Diana Vagelos, is officially dedicated on June 9, 2016. The new building is a state-of-the-art medical and graduate education facility to train the next generation of leaders in medicine and biomedical science. Read more.

  • 2017

    Joachim Frank, PhD, wins the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

    Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017

    Joachim Frank, PhD, professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics and of biological sciences, wins the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, shared with Richard Henderson and Jacques Dubochet, “for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution.” 

  • 2017

    Roy and Diana Vagelos donate $250 million to P&S.

    Dr. P. Roy and Diana Vagelos

    Dr. P. Roy and Diana Vagelos

    Columbia University announced a new gift of $250 million from Dr. P. Roy and Diana Vagelos for the College of Physicians and Surgeons, bringing the couple’s total support for medicine at Columbia to more than $310 million. A major portion of the gift, $150 million, will endow a fund to help Columbia eliminate student loans for medical students who qualify for financial aid, currently about half of the student body in the medical school. About 20 percent of students – those with the greatest need – will receive full-tuition scholarships. University President Lee C. Bollinger announced the medical school, which celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2017, will officially be known as the Columbia University Roy and Diana Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.