History of Medical Schools

This history of medicine is long and varied, and the history of medical schools is no less so. Medical education has been around for centuries and has come quite far since the Hippocratic Oath was first instituted. Here’s a brief look at the history of medical education around the world, along with statistics about modern education and physicians in America.

As one of the oldest binding documents in history, the Hippocratic Oath contains principles that doctors still value today, including treating patients to the best of a physician’s ability, preserving patient privacy, and teaching medicine to the next generation. While the oath has been revised over the years, most medical school students swear to some version of this oath when they graduate.


In Europe, Italy’s city of Salerno was greatly influenced by its Greek past. The city produced well-known male and female medical practitioners and was famous around the continent. Medical knowledge about particular subjects was eventually written down and became known as the “Regimen of the School of Salerno ‘for the King of England.’” Salernitan masters contributed greatly to medicine. Through their reliance on Aristotle’s views of nature, or physis, medicine was eventually called “physica.” From there, the term “physician” was developed. Students of the time noted a need for improved knowledge of anatomy. The principles and procedures they learned were also written down, and eventually a selection of works was used for medical education purposes.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European medical students served as apprentices under a master, performing menial tasks at first and gaining in responsibility until they were considered professionals. After time, diligent individuals began desiring even more knowledge. They flocked to hospitals and lecture halls in cities like Paris, London, and Edinburgh.

Medical Schools in the Modern Era

Eventually, Europe’s growing medical knowledge and teaching style found its way to North America. The first medical school in America was formed during the time of the original thirteen colonies. In 1765, students at the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania) were able to enroll in “anatomical lectures” and a class about “the theory and practice of physik.” The school’s early faculty had obtained their training in Europe and modeled their new institution after the style of their European predecessors. They supplemented their instruction with observation and practice at nearby Pennsylvania Hospital, which was founded by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Bond. The teachers understood that lectures and book learning alone would be insufficient without hands-on practice, as well.

This teaching model continued in the country for more than a century, and Pennsylvania held the role of leader in medical education. Scientific advances from European medical centers eventually prompted change, bringing full-time teachers into the mix, along with new disciplines such as biochemistry, pharmacology, and others.

A rapid expansion of the number of medical schools in the country eventually followed. Some were of good quality and some were not. Supplies were often limited, and courses were of a short duration. At times, the quality of physicians some institutions produced was questionable. However, science was improving, which helped a physician’s resources. Medicine was becoming a scientific field with a methodology.

History of Medical Schools

Medical schools realized they needed to change, as well. More patient contact was emphasized, and increasing numbers of physicians in training chose to travel to Europe, where they would learn from some of the best teachers and schools of the time. In 1827, delegates from medical schools agreed to lengthen the time students needed to spend studying medicine, and to increase their knowledge of subjects like Latin and natural philosophy, as well. Today, students now spend four years in medical school. Schools have grown to understand the importance of clinical practice, and time spent in laboratory studies has increased. Additionally, the creation of state boards has also helped boost the quality of student education.

In April 2010, The Wall Street Journal reported that the United States had approximately 954,000 practicing physicians, including 352,908 primary-care doctors. Medical schools and teaching hospitals have experienced a tremendous push to increase the number of physicians entering the field, as an upcoming shortage has been anticipated in the United States. New medical schools have been opening around the country as a partial solution to the problem. As of October 2009, four new medical schools enrolled approximately 190 students in their programs, and twelve medical schools added 150 slots to their first-year enrollment numbers. The Association of American Medical Colleges reported that around 18,000 students started medical school in the fall of 2009.

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