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Nathan Smith Davis, A Medical School Founder

In recognition of the start of the new academic year at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, which officially launches with the celebration of Founders’ Day in mid-August, we share a series of biographies of our school’s founders.


NSDavis.jpegBelieving that more rigorous education and training, with exacting standards and a longer course of study, was needed for those aspiring to become physicians, Dr. Nathan Smith Davis and five like-minded colleagues developed a more challenging curriculum in the new medical department at Lind University in Chicago. Although Lind was short-lived, the medical department survived as Chicago Medical College and today is called Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.


Nathan Smith Davis was born in Chenango County, New York, in 1817, where he lived and worked on a farm until he was 16 years old. At the age of 17 he began the study of medicine under Dr. Daniel Clark. Soon after he graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Western District of New York with a thesis on animal temperament. He later began practicing medicine in New York City.
In 1841 he was awarded the prize from the Medical Society of the State of New York for his analyses of then-recent discoveries of the physiology of the nervous system. He was later awarded a prize from the State Agricultural Society of New York for his textbook on agricultural chemistry. He was an active member of the Broome County Medical Society, and he served as secretary and librarian of the society for three consecutive years. In 1845, his report as the chairman of the Society’s Committee on Correspondence relative to Medical Education and Examination led to the organization of the American Medical Association.
His first work as a teacher was lecturer and demonstrator of anatomy at his alma mater in 1848. The next year he moved to Chicago and accepted a position as chair of physiology and pathology at Rush Medical College. A year later he took on the additional position as chair of the practice of medicine.
Soon after he arrived in Chicago, there was a cholera epidemic. Dr. Davis found that the public drinking water was polluted by sewage. He immediately delivered a number of lectures, which resulted in city sewer reconstruction and, eventually, the founding of Mercy Hospital. Mercy Hospital was originally the Illinois General Hospital of the Lakes (est. 1850 by Dr. Davis). In 1852, the Sisters of Mercy began operating the hospital renamed Mercy Hospital, in agreement with Dr. Davis who used the institution as a teaching hospital for Rush Medical College students.
In 1858 Davis left Rush to form a new medical school, the Medical Department of Lind University, also in Chicago. In 1862 the medical school became the Chicago Medical College, and in 1892 it became the Northwestern University Medical School. It was at this new institution that he worked for more than 40 years as dean and professor of principles and practice of medicine.
He was also one of the prime members of the Chicago Medical Society and the Illinois State Medical Society. For 12 years he was secretary of the Chicago Medical Society, and in 1855 served as its president.
In the mid-1800′s, he became the editor of the Chicago medical journal, and five years later the Medical examiner, remaining with these journals for 20 years. The two journals merged in 1876, becoming the Chicago medical examiner and journal.
NOTABLE FACT: It was chiefly through his efforts that the Journal of the American Medical Association was established in 1883. He was the journal’s first editor, and he continued in that role for six years.