Although he is not famous today, Dr. John C. Dalton (1825-1889), former P&S president and professor, should be more renowned in the biomedical research community. Dr. Dalton was one of the first American scientists devoted solely to physiological research at a time when there were no great American research universities and no U.S. government research support.
A Columbia exhibition about Dr. Dalton's life gives him deserved recognition. Organized by Stephen E. Novak, head of archives and special collections at the library, the exhibit offers books, photographs, letters, pamphlets, lecture notes, and even tickets to Dr. Dalton's lectures. The displaywhich runs until Jan. 3 and is located in the Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Libraryfocuses chronologically on significant phases in Dr. Dalton's life after he graduated from Harvard medical school in 1847 and includes his tenure at P&S.
Five years out of medical school, Dr. Dalton spent a year in Paris studying under French physiologist Dr. Claude Bernard, whose photo and book, "The Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine," are featured in the exhibit. In Paris, Dr. Dalton participated in animal laboratory experiments, something he later described in his lectures and used in his research. "Medicine as an experimental sciencelearned not solely through lectures but also through experimentswas a revelation to Dr. Dalton because he had not seen anything like it in the United States," Mr. Novak says.
European countries such as France and Germany were ahead of the United States in medical research at the time. "It was difficult for Dr. Dalton when he returned from France, as he sought to focus on research in America, where there was no tradition of full-time academic scientists," Mr. Novak says. Despite the challenges then for a budding scientist, he became a professor of physiology at the University of Buffalo and at the Vermont Medical College.
Dr. Dalton came to P&S in 1855. He was researcher and teacher from 1855 to 1883 and president of P&S from 1884 to 1889. At the beginning of his tenure, between 1855 and 1856, P&S had moved from a building on Crosby Street in Manhattan to another building on Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue South) and 23rd Street. (In 1860, P&S forged a nominal connection with Columbia University and merged completely in 1891.)
The exhibit shows many books Dr. Dalton wrote while at P&S, including the only comprehensive, published history of the early days of P&S, from 1807 to 1887; the first edition of his influential textbook, "Treatise on Human Physiology" (1859); and a copy of "Topographical Anatomy of the Human Brain" (1885), perhaps Dr. Dalton's most important scientific work.
Dr. Dalton spent most of his time teaching, conducting research, and writingnot seeing patients, which was unusual for medical professors of his day. Almost all medical school faculty members then had a medical practice to support themselves and their research. Dr. Dalton apparently managed to fund his research without any outside backing, relying on P&S to pay for his laboratory work, Mr. Novak says. His main research interests were the physiology of digestion, blood sugar, and the anatomy of the brain.
As P&S president, Dr. Dalton helped strengthen medical education by extending the curriculum from two years to three. P&S was one of a few medical schools to do so. But adding a year increased the cost at the risk of unintentionally pushing students to choose another medical school with a shorter, less expensive program. Ultimately, other medical schools made their programs longer.
Another key development during his presidency was the construction in 1887 of a new campus on West 59th Street. (P&S moved to its current location on 168th Street in 1928.) The exhibition contains the handwritten $285,245 construction budget from 1886, a program from the buildings' inauguration in 1887, the 1888-89 P&S catalog showing a sketch of the campus, and a campus photo from the early 1900s. The site included a medical school building as well as the Sloane Hospital for Women and the Vanderbilt Clinic, all of which have since been demolished. At Sloane Hospital, P&S students could get clinical experience as part of their medical educationsomething not typically part of American medical education in the late 19th century. "Before clinical training was required, an American medical student could finish medical school without actually delivering a baby," Mr. Novak says.
The new campus and the stronger curriculum helped push the already respected P&S to the front rank of American medical schools, Mr. Novak says.
But perhaps Dr. Dalton's greatest lasting achievement was his teaching. The exhibition includes Dr. Dalton's lecture notes and sketches of him lecturing using dogs and pigeons in scientific demonstrations. His students, as they set off on their own careers, later developed into the first generation of the American medical researchers, Mr. Novak says. At Dr. Dalton's death in 1889, a prominent American neurologist and writer of the time, Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, said of him: "He had the rare gift of making those who listened [to him]desire to become investigators. He made men think."