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SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University

SUNY Downstate Sesquicentennial

Milestone: Downstate’s First Graduating Class, July 24, 1860 

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On July 24, 2020, Downstate will celebrate a momentous milestone – the 160th Anniversary of the first class to graduate from our founding institution, the Collegiate Division of the Long Island College Hospital, also known as LICH. The vision that launched us, the strength of our first faculty, and the excellence of our first class of students were predictive of the strong institution that SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University is today.

Downstate was the first medical school in the United States to teach clinical medicine to students at the hospital bedside—an innovative, controversial method of instruction in 1860.  So to our students, residents, fellows, and faculty: As you make your hospital rounds, keep in mind that it was our institution that introduced this practice to American medicine.

Our founding faculty was outstanding: The journal International Record of Medicine and General Practice Clinics, Volume 101, described it as “One of the strongest faculties ever formed in America.” Many of the Founders’ lectures, along with reports of the operations they performed, were published in the medical press of the time.

etching of Dr. Austin FlintThe eight Founding Faculty members included Dr. Austin Flint, who is credited with doing more than any other physician of his time to bring the stethoscope into general use;  Dr. Frank Hastings Hamilton, an expert in fractures who published the first complete textbook on this subject in English (1860), and Dr. John C. Dalton, the most renowned physiologist in America and an early proponent of using ether as an anesthetic.

The first class matriculated on March 29, 1860. Out of a class of 58 students, 21 would participate in the first graduation ceremony four months later. Students came from 12 states, from up and down the Eastern seaboard and as far away as Colorado and California, and from four foreign countries. Candidates for admission had to have studied medicine for three years under the direction of a regular practitioner, be at least 21 years old, and have good moral character. To graduate, students had to submit a thesis, in their own handwriting, on a medical subject.

Commencement exercises took place on the evening of July 24, in the Chapel of the Packer Collegiate Institute, a private school on Joralemon Street that still exists today.  An opening prayer was offered by Dr. Richard Salter Storrs of the Church of the Pilgrims, followed by addresses from Dr. Flint and Dr. T.L. Mason, member of the Council of the Long Island College Hospital and President of the Collegiate Division, who also gave a reception for the faculty and graduates after the ceremony. The Hippocratic Oath was administered by Dr. C. L. Mitchell, also a member of the LICH Council. Recited by all graduates, we follow this professional tradition at our graduation exercises to this day.

(It is of interest to note that the graduating class paid for the printing of Dr. Austin Flint’s commencement address. They may have also paid for printing additional addresses, but these may not have survived.)

Our first students studied and graduated during the run-up to the Civil War. Brooklyn at that time was an independent city, not yet a borough of New York City. With a population of 266,661, it was the third largest city in the nation, with a large percentage of immigrants (37%), mostly from Ireland and Germany, but from many other nations as well. According to census data, there were approximately 5,000 African Americans living in Brooklyn.

In 1860, slavery was a major topic of discussion in Brooklyn’s streets, newspapers, and church pulpits. It is likely that it was a topic of conversation at LICH as well. It had been just three years since the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision declared that enslaved workers were the legal property of their owners, and that all people of African descent, free or enslaved, were not United States citizens and therefore not entitled to protection from slavery under the Constitution. Brooklyn, like the rest of the nation, was divided on the issue and it is probable that our first students and faculty held strong opinions, both pro and con.  That the leadership of LICH asked Reverend Storrs, a pastor known for his emphatic opposition to slavery, to deliver the prayer at our first graduation provides a clue that LICH strongly supported the abolition of slavery.

Brooklyn was a vital hub in the Underground Railroad network, and Plymouth Church, located just a short distance from LICH, was an important stop on the journey to freedom. Its preacher, Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), was one of the most famous abolitionists in the country. Abraham Lincoln visited and prayed at Plymouth Church twice in 1860.

Of our first class of graduates, at least eight that we know of fought in the Civil War after graduation, three on the side of the Confederacy, and five for the U.S. Army. One, Charles O’Leary, served as a Brigade Surgeon for the Northern army throughout the war, including at the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg.  (LICH and members of our Founding Faculty would also participate in the war effort on the side of the Union. Dr. Hamilton, for example, was appointed Professor of Military Surgery at LICH in 1861, a position that existed in no other medical school in the country. He also in that year left LICH to volunteer as a regimental surgeon and wrote the Civil War guide to military surgery. In 1863, Dr. Hamilton was appointed military inspector of the army with the rank of lieutenant colonel.)

There were several other students in that first class that bear mention. Reverend Dr. John Scudder was born in India, the son of a famous American physician-missionary who served there. Dr. Scudder would return to India to serve as head of the Government and Mission Hospital in Vellore, a city even then famous for its ancient temples and forts. Dr. Arthur Du Berceau received Downstate’s first diploma. He was also Downstate’s first Caribbean student-- he was born in Martinique. His will stipulated that after his death, his diploma be returned to LICH.

In many ways, the Downstate of today is like the Downstate of yesterday. 160 years after we began, we remain united in purpose. We were forged in innovation, grounded in excellence, have persevered through determination, and remain committed to serving our community and advancing medical knowledge. We are Downstate, and we are worth fighting for.