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 Presybterian 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
Columbia University is founded as King's College.
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."
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.
King's College awards first MD in the 13 American Colonies.
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.
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.
King’s College reopens as Columbia College after the Revolutionary War.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons (P&S) is founded by charter.
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.
Civil War impacts P&S.
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.
George Huntington, MD, first outlines Huntington's disease.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Whipple procedure is pioneered by Allen Whipple, MD.
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.
Cystic fibrosis is identified by Dorothy Andersen, MD.
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.
Treatment for lethal meningitis is developed by Hattie E. Alexander, MD.
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.
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.
Bacitracin is developed at P&S.
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.
Benjamin Spock, MD, publishes “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care.”
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.
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.
Arthur Voorhees'46 develops the first successful artificial arteries.
Virginia Apgar, MD, publishes a simple 10-point scoring method for predicting infant health at birth.
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.
André F. Cournand and Dickinson W. Richards win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
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.
Columbia researchers pioneer a vaccine that helps to eradicate Rh disease in newborns.
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.
Nancy Wexler, PhD, leads effort to identify Huntington’s disease gene.
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.
Columbia surgeons perform first successful pediatric heart transplant.
Keith Reemtsma'58 and Eric Rose'75, faculty members in the Department of Surgery, perform 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.
Columbia holds first White Coat Ceremony.
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.
Angela Christiano, PhD, discovers first human gene associated with hair loss.
Eric Kandel, MD, wins the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
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.
Richard Axel, MD, wins the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
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.
NIH awards precision medicine grant.
The Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center is officially dedicated.
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.
Joachim Frank, PhD, wins the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
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.”
Roy and Diana Vagelos donate $250 million to P&S.
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.