IT MUST HAVE BEEN AN INSPIRING SIGHT THAT FRIDAY AFTERNOON in October 1928: 3,000 people seated in the audience, faculty and administrators wearing academic gowns, and 300 nurses dressed in white had gathered to officially open the world’s first academic medical center, a place New Yorkers called “the Medical Center” that would become known a few years later — and still 75 years later — as Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.
It’s clear from the New York Times coverage of the event and historical accounts that the founders understood the significance of what they had built. They brought medical, nursing, public health, and dental education together with institutions that cared for patients. Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler called the medical center a “vital union of organization, of purpose, and of public service.”

The 12 organizations that opened their doors March 16, 1928, but came together that October day for an official dedication were Columbia’s College of Physicians & Surgeons, Presbyterian Hospital, the Sloane Hospital for Women, the New York State Psychiatric Institute, Babies Hospital, the Squier Urological Clinic, Presbyterian Hospital School of Nursing, the Neurological Institute, the Stephen V. Harkness Patient Pavilion, Columbia’s School of Dental and Oral Surgery, the Vanderbilt Clinic, and the DeLamar Institute of Public Health. Some of the names are now obsolete, reflecting the evolution of the medical center. Presbyterian Hospital is now New York-Presbyterian Hospital — since Presbyterian’s merger with New York Hospital — and the hospital now includes the Sloane Hospital, Babies Hospital (now called Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of New York), the Squier Urological Clinic, the Neurological Institute, and Vanderbilt Clinic. The hospital’s nursing school moved to Columbia University, where it was part of the Faculty of Medicine until achieving independent school status in 2000. The DeLamar Institute of Public Health, also part of the Faculty of Medicine, evolved into an independent school of public health, now named the Mailman School of Public Health.
Columbia President Butler mentioned the significance of the Oct. 12 dedication falling on the anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. “It is becoming that Columbia University, a vigorous and forward-facing child of that New World ... should mark with distinction and large acclaim the effective and noble completion of a great project of highest scientific importance and public service.” At the groundbreaking in 1925, President Butler had promised to build “a monument more lasting than bronze.”
Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center continues to fulfill the vision Edward S. Harkness described in a 1910 letter: “The scientific development of medicine has especially interested me recently, and I have become convinced that its real underlying province and mission to humanity lies more particularly in preventing disease than in merely curing it. I am convinced that this scientific development can best be accomplished in the hospital and the medical school, and that the two are interdependent, the one on the other. The medical school constantly supplies the physicians and surgeons of the future who in their early training must have every facility for practical experience and application, which they can only obtain at a hospital where they are taught by the practicing physicians and scientific men. The hospital supplies a vast amount of material for study and research, and should realize that besides caring for the sick, it has a great obligation towards humanity to use this material both in the training of the younger men and in furthering discoveries in preventive medicine.”
That opening ceremony on Oct. 12, 1928, took on the semblance of a commencement
ceremony, complete with honorary degrees for the donor of the 20-acre site on which the medical center was built, the president of the hospital, the medical center’s architect, and the construction chief. A military band provided processional music. It was a commencement in the truest meaning of the word. This medical center was about to embark on an incredible journey in a novel partnership never before attempted. The details of the alliance between the hospital and Columbia took years to develop and years more to come to fruition in a set of buildings on the outskirts of a major city. Years earlier, professional baseball had been played on the site. A few years later, the George Washington Bridge would open nearby. We look back with pride at what these men and women built as they must have looked forward with hope in the possibilities of the medical center.
The individuals speaking that day knew the possibilities included growth. General William Barclay Parsons, chairman of the Joint Administrative Board of the medical center and head of Columbia’s Board of Trustees, said: “The fruits of 18 years of labor stand before you. No claim is made that the work is finished, because to the man of science progress has no end, no horizon. The allied institutions offer this first effort as an initial contribution to the relief of suffering humanity in all forms and for all time.”
Today, 75 years later, we still pursue academic medicine as a means to ease the burden of human suffering. Though much has changed at the medical center, that tenet remains steadfast. In fact, the pursuit of that goal is where the history of CPMC and its future intersect.
In 2002 we finished preparing a strategic plan that maps the academic, physical, research, and clinical futures of the medical center. Work on the plan was completed, but work on implementing the plan has only just begun. It’s easy for me to imagine the next 75 years of growth of the medical center in much the way the dedicators of the place looked forward in 1928.
They stood before buildings and great minds that had an unlimited potential to serve. Today’s great minds are hopeful that the strategic plan will be a blueprint for innovation, progress, and public service that perpetuates and augments the success of the medical center’s first 75 years.
Although we describe ourselves as one medical center, we acknowledge our independent pursuit of common goals. Columbia’s Health Sciences schools, the hospital, and New York State Psychiatric Institute remain separately governed and separately led entities. At the 1928 dedication P&S dean emeritus Samuel Lambert acknowledged the independent status of the organizations that formed an alliance at the medical center: “The details of incorporation may be different so long as the unity of interest in medical education is preserved.” The 2002 strategic plan will move the contemporary medical center alliance forward while leaving organizational independence intact. To paraphrase Dr. Lambert, the details of each organization may be different but the unity of purpose must never waver.
I am proud to lead the Columbia component of this great medical center and I rely heavily on the deans of nursing, dentistry, and public health — Mary Mundinger, Ira Lamster, and Allan Rosenfield — as well as Herb Pardes and others in leadership positions at the hospital to keep our vision focused on our noble goals. It is humbling to realize that our goals today differ little from the goals set forth in the medical center dedication of 1928. The biggest change in physical terms has been a byproduct of time. What was modern in 1928 is antiquated today. Health-care needs also have changed over the course of these 75 years but the ultimate worthiness of public service will never be outdated.
On the pages of this special issue you will read histories of the organizations that make up the medical center and profiles of significant moments and individuals in our shared history. I hope you feel the same pride of place that I bring with me to work each day, and I invite you to join me in any way possible to ensure another successful 75 years.


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