Skip directly to content

Birmingham Medical College

A.J. Wright, University of Alabama at Birmingham
Birmingham Medical College (BMC) was a for-profit educational institution that operated in the city from 1894 until 1915. Along with Graefenberg Medical Institute (1852-1861) in Dadeville , Tallapoosa County , and Montezuma University Medical College (1896-1898), in Bessemer , Jefferson County , the school was one of three such medical schools that have operated in the state.
When BMC opened, the state's only non-profit medical school was Mobile's Medical College of Alabama, which had operated since 1859, except for an interruption during the Civil War and Reconstruction . Founded by prominent physicians, that school had been designated by the state legislature as the Medical Department of the University of Alabama (UA) and thereby became an academic, not proprietary, medical school.
By the early 1890s, as Birmingham expanded as an industrial center, nine local physicians agreed that the town needed its own medical school. The doctors were well-known. John D. S. and William E. B. Davis were surgeon brothers and founding members of the Southern Surgical and Gynecological Association. William H. Johnston and Benjamin L. Wyman were a future president and past secretary of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama. Russell M. Cunningham, who would serve as interim governor during the illness-plagued tenure of William Jelks, directed hospital operations for the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI). John C. LeGrande was editor of the Alabama Medical and Surgical Age, and Benjamin G. Copeland operated a successful infirmary in the city. James H. McCarty and Lewis G. Woodson, an eye, ear and throat specialist, were also involved. The nine physicians established a proprietary institution and expected a 6 percent return on their investment. They also formed the first faculty; Johnston was chosen as the first dean. In later years, other local physicians would join the faculty.
The school opened on October 1, 1894, in a five-story building on 21st Street North built in 1887 for the Lunsford Hotel. The Birmingham Dental College, which had opened in fall 1893, shared some of the space. Electricity and carpeting provided a modern, comfortable setting. The school featured two lecture rooms capable of seating 200 each, offices, faculty rooms, and various laboratories. Thirty-two students made up the first class. In 1897, the state legislature granted the school a charter, which covered ownership rights for the nine doctors and allowed the school to claim the bodies of deceased paupers in Jefferson County for use in student instruction.
Entrance requirements were minimal by modern standards. In the early years, a student had to meet only one of three criteria: be an apprentice of a recognized physician; have a certificate from a high school or state or county education superintendent or a diploma from a scientific or literary school; or pass a high school graduation exam before beginning a second year at BMC. Graduating students had to be 21 and had to have taken three courses of seven months each.
Classes ranged from Theory and Practice of Medicine and Clinical Medicine to Anatomy, Chemistry and Toxicology, Oral Surgery, Obstetrics, and Gynecological and Abdominal Surgery. Although seemingly comprehensive, the classes were not taken by students in a logical order, and students received little training in physiology, pharmacology, and related biomedical subjects. Classes did not build on one another, and gaps in education had to be filled in future practical experience.
Students obtained clinical experience in the college's infirmary, at Hillman Hospital near Southside, or at the TCI facilities in Pratt City, a Birmingham neighborhood. These facilities, however, were all some distance away from the schools' initial location. Lectures and laboratory work thus formed a large part of their experiences. Students also gained surgical experience in the Davis brothers' canine research lab, which had gained a national reputation.
By 1902, BMC boasted 94 students and was outgrowing its facilities. That year, it moved to a building on 20th Street next to Hillman Hospital and its 98 patient beds. Faculty arranged for student privileges at the hospital, thereby giving students more hands-on experience. The new four-story building, which opened in July 1903, included two large lecture halls and expanded laboratory space. The entire fourth floor was devoted to anatomy. The Davis brothers also moved their canine laboratory into the new building.
In January 1909, the school was reviewed by Abraham Flexner, an educator. He was hired by the American Medical Association's Council on Medical Education and the Carnegie Foundation as an outsider to study the status of medical education in the United States. Flexner found the school lacking in many areas. He criticized the nominal entrance requirements and the outdated anatomy instruction and found the chemistry, bacteriology, and pathology labs poorly equipped. He also noted that students were exposed to only limited types of medical cases, such as wounds caused by violence, and gained little experience regarding obstetrics and illnesses related to disease. Basing his model on the highly advanced medical school at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Flexner questioned Alabama's ability to support a four-year medical school, or even its need for one. He suggested a two-year school based in Tuscaloosa, associated with UA, to consolidate medical education efforts in the state.
The report was published in 1910 and included some very specific recommendations for improvement if the administrators of BMC wished to keep the school open. Flexner suggested that entrance requirements should be slowly raised to equal those of UA, an attendance policy be implemented, and courses be graded. He also noted that course sessions should be lengthened and laboratories added in physiology, biochemistry, and pharmacology. These additions would require the hiring of five or six full-time laboratory instructors.
In the wake of the report, BMC struggled to survive while attempting to meet these costly expectations. That year, the Birmingham Dental College merged with BMC, creating the Birmingham Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical College, and the school strove to respond to Flexner's findings and regain a Class A designation from the Council on Medical Education. Jefferson County passed a bond issue for hospital expansion. In 1911, a fund-raising campaign began, and a committee approached the legislature about sharing funds with the medical school in Mobile. An independent board of trustees was created, but regional disputes in the legislature prevented the sharing of funds. In the end, BMC assets were transferred to UA on September 12, 1912, and all BMC graduates were named alumni of the university. UA operated the college until the final students graduated on May 27, 1915. Attempts were made to create a Graduate School of Medicine for courses physicians could take beyond the M.D., but this effort lasted only briefly during the school's final years.
Birmingham Medical College was not a failure, however, because it provided a template for the medical school in Birmingham that would later be established at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Some 351 graduates practiced medicine in Alabama and elsewhere for decades after its closure. In addition to the prominent local physicians who founded the school, others served on its faculty, including Lloyd Noland, Mortimer H. Jordan, and Edgar P. Hogan. In 1899, the only female student, Elizabeth White, became the second woman to graduate from an Alabama medical school, following Louisa Shepard at Graefenberg in the 1850s.
The BMC's building was eventually demolished, but the Hillman Hospital buildings remain a part of the UAB Medical Center.
UAB Historical Collections has digitized its large group of materials related to Birmingham Medical College.
Additional Resources
Holley, Howard L. The History of Medicine in Alabama. Birmingham: University of Alabama School of Medicine, 1982.
Luketic, Velimir. "The Birmingham Medical College." Alabama Journal of Medical Sciences 6 (October 1969): 447-54.
Published:  December 12, 2016   |   Last updated:  December 12, 2016