In the 1870s, medicine was in a miserable state in Arkansas. Few doctors were available and the remote locations of many farmsteads and small towns made it difficult for doctors to reach patients. Worse still, there were no means to train new doctors in Arkansas. Two Little Rock medical partners, Dr. Philo Hooper and Dr. Augustus Breysacher, decided it was time for this to change. Together with a team of other respected physicians, they launched what is now one of the most respected medical schools in the South, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
Dr. Hooper himself knew the difficulties young doctors in Arkansas faced. Even growing up in Little Rock, there was little education available for someone interested in medicine. He attended college in Tennessee and apprenticed in Arkansas under Dr. Lorenzo Gibson, learning what he could until he gained admission to a medical school in Pennsylvania, graduating at age 23. Dr. Breysacher had been born in Ohio and earned his medical degree in Missouri in 1859. In 1873, he teamed up with Hooper to form their popular medical practice.
The two saw the great difficulties education faced in the state. In the early 1870s, some politicians still fought the establishment of the University of Arkansas. Doctors had fought legislators in 1873 to even get legal permission to dissect cadavers. While such dissections were essential tools for young medical students to understand the workings of the human body, the practice disgusted laymen who did not understand its use. Other doctors expressed their concerns as well and formed the Arkansas Medical Society in 1875 in order to help each other learn the latest developments in medicine and establish professional standards for Arkansas doctors.
Hooper and Breysacher met with six other Little Rock-area physicians and discussed the need for improved medical education in the state. The eight had all served as surgeons in the Civil War, in both Union and Confederate armies, and had all seen how incompetent medical care had cost countless lives. The eight, all successful and wealthy men, decided it was time to invest in the future of the health of the people. Contributing $625 each, they established the state’s first medical school in 1879. However, this $625 would be worth $19,000 in modern dollars.
The school would be housed in an old hotel they had bought, which was next door to a hardware store that also had a medical dispensary students would also work in. All eight co-founders would serve as professors in addition to their regular medical practices. Twenty-two students were admitted for the fall 1879 session, with the first graduate in 1880.
Though the early years of the medical school were difficult, today UAMS houses more than three thousand students and more than 1,400 professors, in addition to 787 resident physicians who provide expert care in communities across the state. Here, the state’s first bone marrow transplant and liver transplants were performed and millions of dollars are poured into research into cancer and geriatrics. More than 500,000 square feet of the UAMS facility in Little Rock is dedicated to research. The college itself generates $5 billion for Arkansas each year. All from the vision of two partners dedicated to saving medicine in Arkansas.