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P&S Journal

P&S Journal: Fall 1996, Vol.16, No.3
Faculty Remembered: Willard Cole Rappleye 1892-1976

By Nicholas P. Christy'51

This series, Faculty Remembered, features profiles of former faculty members at P&S. The author of the series is a 1951 P&S graduate and former professor of medicine. He is now special lecturer in medicine and writer-in-residence at P&S.

Willard Rappleye held the deanship of P&S from 1931 to 1958, longer than anyone before or since. Medical students of that era thought he was tough and conservative; the faculty thought he was tough and could get things done; outside P&S he was admired as the tough man who brought the college into modern times, revered as an innovative medical educator, reviled as a wild-eyed radical. All those views were accurate-depending on one's angle of vision.

About his toughness there was no debate. Born of French Huguenots who emigrated to New Amsterdam via Holland, Rappleye spent an outdoor boyhood in northern Wisconsin and upper Michigan-iron mine and lumber camp country-which prepared him well for a hard career. Two early reverses toughened him further and taught him self-reliance. At 14, in an accident on his uncle's farm, a mower nearly severed both legs. The surgeons set about amputation but Willard persuaded them to spare his limbs. He recovered; the residual disability did not keep him from starring as quarterback on his high school football team, "not much on running but he handed off a lot." Soon after, in 1912, his father died, delaying Rappleye's entrance into college. After working two years in a local manufacturing firm, he entered the University of Illinois, supported himself, excelled in his studies, and finished in three years. Admitted to Harvard Medical School with full scholarships, he worked as a laboratory assistant, graduating magna cum laude in 1918.

Those years produced nine technical research papers in such publications as the Journal of Biological Chemistry. After a year as medical intern at Massachusetts General, he followed his growing interest in administrative medicine by taking up successive leadership posts within the University of California hospital system. Yale wooed him back East by appointing him superintendent of New Haven Hospital. By now-in his mid-30s-he had attracted national notice as an authority on hospital management, the training of hospital executives, the accreditation of foreign medical graduates, postgraduate medical specialty training, the hospital's role in medical training, nursing education, and other topics. Recognizing Rappleye's quality, Harvard in 1930 offered him an assistant deanship in its medical faculty but something more challenging captured him: the deanship of P&S at America's first university medical center whose doors had just opened (1928).

Over the next three decades (1931-58) Rappleye oversaw a phenomenal growth in the faculty, a six-fold increase in the teaching budget, and a 25-fold rise in research funding. He never saw his role as building a primarily research center, rather taking pains to make a structure wherein research could evolve into a fiscally self-supporting entity. He took even greater care in choosing his chairmen-people were more important than bricks and mortar-then guiding them in hiring their associates and financing their activities. Rappleye's appointees comprise his chief legacy to P&S: Rittenberg, Chargaff, Meyer, Dochez, Heidelberger, Kabat, Frantz, Lattes, Van Dyke, Papper, Apgar, Loeb, Bradley, Cournand, Hanger, Richards, Ragan, Taggart, Putnam, Merritt, Pool, Taylor, Stinchfield, Harold Brown, McIntosh, Alexander, Anderson, Kolb, Golden, Humphreys, Cahill, Lattimer. Attentive as he was to fund raising and recruiting, Rappleye never abandoned his educational purpose: In faculty meetings it was he who would ask, in regard to some new proposal, "What's in it for the students?"

With all this effort at P&S, plus founding institutes (cancer, nutrition, for example), creating hospital affiliations, bringing in Delafield and the New York Orthopedic Hospital-and much more-Rappleye did many things outside: 90 articles, several books, membership in 50 prestigious organizations, leadership of 40 high-level boards and committees. His writings provoked controversy: Long an advocate of prepaid medical insurance, he reported in 1949-50 on the British health system; his objective account infuriated conservatives who called him "that Red, Rappleye" because he did not savage the system-after all, that was socialized medicine. Despite his accomplishments, awards, honorary degrees, and all, he fell out in 1958 with Columbia's president (Rappleye had got on superbly with Presidents Butler and Eisenhower; the general would pace the dean's office muttering, "Willard, what are we going to do with these goddamn professors?") and he was forced to resign.

He remained productive in his last years, heading the Macy Foundation; advising the government, universities, and learned societies; fishing and chopping wood at his camp in Maine; and following athletics keenly. Dying at 84, the "invisible dean," not a publicity-seeker, preferring to be recognized by those who mattered, could leave the scene secure in the knowledge that he had vastly improved medical education, bettered the delivery of medical care in the country, and placed P&S among the top four medical schools in America.


The writer acknowledges help from the following: Martin Collins, who supplied useful documents from the college's library and archives; Willard C. Rappleye Jr.'s recollections of his father; and an anonymous informant who provided this anecdote illustrating Dean Rappleye's quiet force as an austere, dignified figure, unfailingly good-humored but nevertheless conveying the impression of a person not to be trifled with: In 1948-49 (the McCarthy era) an intensely liberal society of interns and medical students sought to establish a chapter at P&S and made some headway. The dean, apprehensive about the society's left-leaning characteristics and possible bad publicity for Columbia, summoned to his office two class presidents (unheard of at a time when medical students never saw the "Big Dean"). The students emerged a half hour later minus the organization but with no raised voices, no overt display of authority, nobody angry.


copyright ©, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center

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