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Capsules of Our History — LSU School of Medicine
Did you know. . .
Although the School of Medicine began operation in 1931, it almost came into being much earlier. In 1865 the La State Seminary and Military Academy, located in Alexandria, LA and the predecessor of LSU in Baton Rouge considered establishing a School of Medicine. The Board of Directors also decided to combine it with a School of Engineering planning to grant the dual degree of physician and engineer. They went so far as to advertise for faculty who could teach medicine, surgery geology, chemistry and mineralogy.
In 1866 they actually hired a faculty member but never enrolled a student. The combined degree program disappeared from the catalog in 1867 never to be seen again.
In 1877 the Louisiana Legislature granted a Charter to the LSU System to create a School of Medicine. Serious work to create the School did not begin until 1930.
The LSU School of Medicine had an unusual beginning—a two-hour meeting of the LSU Board of Supervisors on Saturday, January 3, 1931, in Gov. Huey Long’s suite at the Roosevelt (now the Fairmont) Hotel in downtown New Orleans. Long is said to have attended in his pajamas. The meeting was dominated by the Governor, who was the driving force in establishing a medical school within the LSU system. With little discussion, the Board passed a resolution establishing a school, and selected Dr. Arthur Vidrine to be its first dean.
Dr. Vidrine, superintendent of Charity Hospital, was Long’s nominee. A surgeon who had graduated from Tulane School of Medicine, Dr. Vidrine had also been a Rhodes Scholar. He was later given approval by the Charity Hospital Board of Supervisors to retain his position as superintendent while serving as dean. In 1935 Vidrine would make an unsuccessful attempt to save Long’s life after Long was shot in Baton Rouge. He served as Dean until 1937.
Gov. Long’s motivation in establishing a state school of medicine was not based on personal antagonism toward Tulane University, although this story still flourishes. According to his chief biographer, T. Harry Williams, Gov. Long had been concerned about the lack of medical care for poor and middle-income people from the time he became governor. After studying the state’s medical education facilities, he concluded that inadequate medical care resulted from a statewide shortage of doctors. Tulane could not provide enough doctors in Long’s view, and its high tuition prevented many students from considering it.
Once Gov. Long achieved the important preliminaries of legally establishing the School and selecting its dean, he allowed Dr. Vidrine and his aides to assume the responsibility for the practical organization of the school, including choosing faculty and ensuring that the new medical center science building would be ready for the students in the fall of 1931.
On Thursday, October 1, 1931, the LSU School of Medicine received it first students, a small transfer class of juniors and a larger class of freshmen. Only one floor of the LSU Medical Center building was opened when classes started. The eight-story structure, built in the midst of the old Charity Hospital complex, had many art deco features. The most dramatic was over the foyer—a large silver-colored plaster bas-relief, “the Conquest of Yellow Fever,” celebrating the U.S. Army Yellow Fever Commission led by Dr. Walter Reed in Cuba in 1900. One of the Commission’s four members, Dr. Aristides Agramonte, was appointed LSU’s first head of tropical medicine.
Unfortunately, Dr. Agramonte died the summer before the school opened. The school purchased his personal library, which formed the nucleus of the school’s library.
Adapted from “This I Remember,” by Robert Miciotto
Many regard Dr. Maes as the first Chairman of Surgery at LSU. Actually a local non-academic surgeon served briefly before Maes was recruited from Tulane, and then Dr. Maes served from 1932 until 1954 when he was succeeded by his protégé Dr. James D. Rives.
Nationally known and extremely talented, Dr. Maes was described as a first-rate educator and a man of very strong opinion. A contemporary Dr. Edgar Hull once admiringly described Maes as a “tyrant.” At a critical juncture in the early history of the school Maes was instrumental in holding the institution together.
Beryl I. Burns, who was appointed Dean to succeed Rigney d’Aunoy in 1939 was summarily dismissed by the University President in 1945. The cause was disagreement over funding for school operations. Without any consultation, the President of the LSU System appointed Dr. Wilbur “Bull” Smith a Professor of Anatomy at Tulane and head of Tulane’s Department of Athletics (yes, you read that correctly) as Dean of LSU School of Medicine. To put it charitably, neither Burn’s dismissal or Smith’s appointment were well received.
Led by Dr. Maes, the faculty staged a revolt and resigned en masse. Smith lasted two months and was replaced by Dr. George W. McCoy, a respected faculty member, as Acting Dean. The President took a more hands-off approach to the school thereafter. The faculty was united in a way that they had never seen before and withdrew their resignations.
Described by a contemporary as a man with more enemies than Huey Long, Dr. D’Aunoy served as first Chairman of Pathology from 1931 to 1939 and as the second Dean of the School from 1937 to 1939. He also served as “Secretary of the Faculty” an ill-defined but apparently powerful position and was the “chief planner,” as a colleague described him, for the school in its infancy.
He was nationally known in his field, an important characteristic because it gave the school immediate legitimacy in the eyes of accrediting agencies. He was a hard and demanding task master given to snap judgment. Many recounted that D’Aunoy would on the first day of class address the incoming freshmen with the advice to look at the man on your left and on your right because one of you would be gone by Christmas.
He had a key role in the early days of the school but his treatment of students and faculty was the stuff of legend. He was known to expel students for what many considered trivial reasons and there was no appeal of his decisions. One student challenged him to a fist fight but Dr. D’Aunoy declined.
Clearly D’Aunoy helped the school in many ways but two stories, both perhaps apocryphal, tell much about the man. A student was called to D’Aunoy’s office. This usually meant expulsion and his friends gathered around the office to offer their support. The student emerged smiling. They asked if he was expelled but he said no. They couldn’t believe it but the student explained that he told D’Aunoy that if D’Aunoy expelled him from medical school he planned to kill D’Aunoy.
In the second story D’Aunoy was taken gravely ill and was hospitalized at Hotel Dieu Hospital. A call went out to faculty for blood donations. It is said that no one responded.