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William Heath Byford: 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.

Dr. William H. Byford

Dr. William H. Byford


William Heath Byford (1817-1890) was a pioneer in the medical education of women and was one of the organizers of the Woman’s Hospital Medical College, later Northwestern University Woman’s Medical School.

Dr. Byford was almost wholly self-educated. He attended school for three or four years, until the death of his father forced him, at nine years old, to abandon education and enter the working world to support his mother and two older siblings. Then, at the age of eighteen, he determined that he wanted to become a physician and began studying under Dr. Joseph Maddox. He soon passed the Indiana State Medical Board examination and was admitted to practice in August 1838. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Mount Vernon and ran a prominent surgical practice for a decade. During this time, he studied medicine and graduated from the Ohio Medical College.
In 1850, he was called to chair the anatomy department at the Evansville Medical College in Indiana; he stayed at Evansville until the institution closed in 1856. Dr. Byford continued to practice medicine in Evansville until he was called to chair the Department of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women at Rush Medical College in 1857. He also was elected vice president of the American Medical Association that year. Two years later he became one of the founders of the Chicago Medical College, where he worked for 20 years. Then in 1879, he returned to Rush Medical College to become the first chair of the Department of Gynecology, a position created specifically for him.
During his 50-plus years of practice, Dr. Byford dedicated himself to the work of alleviating the physical sufferings of women. He was one of the founders of the Woman’s Hospital Medical College of Chicago in 1870, which later became the Woman’s Medical College, then later Northwestern University Woman’s Medical School, to which he made many significant financial donations. He was president of the faculty from the time of the school’s founding in 1870 until his death in 1890.
In 1876, a number of the eminent physicians of the country organized the American Gynecological Society, Dr. Byford being prominently identified with the movement. He was elected one of the first vice presidents, and in 1881 was made president. In 1875, when the Medical Press Association of Chicago was organized, and the two medical journals then published in the city under the titles of Medical Journal and Medical Examiner were consolidated under the name Chicago Medical Journal and Examiner, Dr. Byford was a prominent mover in the enterprise, and for three years was editor-in-chief of that publication.
He was a prolific writer, primarily on obstetrics and gynecology, and his first paper in 1847 was on caesarean section. He wrote the notable textbook, Practice of Medicine and Surgery Applied to the Diseases and Accidents Incident to Women (1865).