On September 19, 1782, the president and fellows of Harvard College adopted a report, presented by President Joseph Willard, embodying plans for a medical school. With a handful of students and a faculty of three, classes at the medical school began in Harvard Hall in the College yard, and later were transferred to Holden Hall, originally the College chapel.
Medical education in that era meant attending formal lectures for a semester or two, and being apprenticed to a practicing physician for several years. No academic preparation was required, no written exams were mandatory. Students did not pay tuition, but bought tickets to admit them to professors' lectures.
The first three professors of the School were John Warren, professor of anatomy and surgery; Benjamin Waterhouse, professor of the theory and practice of physic; and Aaron Dextor, professor of chemistry and materia medica.
Benjamin Waterhouse had been educated at universities and hospitals in Europe. As a result of his contacts in England, he received a publication printed there in 1798 by Edward Jenner, reporting successful vaccination against smallpox. Waterhouse introduced Jenner's ideas to the U.S. medical community and first used the vaccine on members of his own family. As a result of Waterhouse's vigorous support of the smallpox vaccination, it was tested in Boston and gained acceptance in the United States.
John Warren, a very skilled teacher and surgeon, was instrumental in moving the medical school to Boston, where it was more convenient for the faculty to see their private patients as well as those in the dispensaries and military and naval hospitals that were being established in the city. In 1811, Warren's son, John Collins Warren, along with James Jackson, led efforts to start Massachusetts General Hospital.
Besides the original professors, other individuals helped Harvard Medical School over time. Charles Eliot became president of Harvard University in 1869, and in the few years following, he established a novel curriculum at the medical school. Admission standards were raised, written exams requiring passing grades were instituted, new departments of basic and clinical sciences were established, a three-year degree program was introduced, and the apprenticeship system was eliminated.
In 1906, the medical school moved to Longwood Avenue in Boston, and the five marble-faced buildings that comprise the current Quadrangle were dedicated. The Fenway area was open farm and marshland when the medical school moved there, and that combination of new school and empty land stimulated a migration of hospitals to the area. Harvard Medical School has 18 affiliates, where most of the clinical training for interns, residents, and medical students occurs.
Harvard Medical School is a place of “firsts.” Since the introduction of smallpox vaccination to America in 1799 by Professor Waterhouse, Harvard Medical School faculty have discovered, innovated, and made giant steps toward improving human health and medical practices. The first introduction of insulin to the U.S. was made by Harvard Medical School researchers. The iron lung was invented for polio patients; then work on poliovirus done at the medical school paved the way for vaccines against polio, and made the iron lung obsolete. Other innovations include mapping the visual system of the brain, development of the external cardiac pacemaker, development of artificial skin, the first successful kidney transplant, initial use of direct electric current to restore the rhythm of the heart, and discovery of the gene that causes Duchenne's muscular dystrophy.