Our Iowa Heritage: The Medical Building.

Medical Building: The University’s Ill-Fated Medical Experiment.

The Medical Building was built in 1882 at a cost of $45,000, and was constructed to house the growing Medical College, which opened its doors for the first time on Sept. 20, 1870. Over its short 19-year existence, this stately building was twice remodeled, the last time in 1888. Twice struck by lightning and once having its roof torn off in a wind storm, the nemesis which seemed to pursue this building completed its work of ruin on a wild night (March 10, 1901) after a storm of ice and sleet had been raging for hours. The fire alarm was turned in at a quarter till three in the morning and a great crowd gathered to watch the fire and offer assistance, but it was too late, for the flames made short work of the interior wooden construction.

The Red Brick Campus: Building #5 – 1882 – 1901.

Location: The Medical Building was located directly south of Old Capitol and South Hall, on what was, at that time, called University Square (The Pentacrest). The Medical Building faced east, with two entrances: one on the east side, and the second on the south, leading to the intersection of Capitol and Washington Streets.

A Growing University – An Inadequate Budget.

In the late 1870’s, the campus scene at Iowa did not warrant a hopeful outlook. Though the University was growing, the State General Assembly was very stingy in giving the University what it needed to expand, let alone maintain the status quo. Soon after President Josiah L. Pickard came into office (1878), the Visiting Committee noted that chairs, desks, and furniture in all departments were old and very dilapidated, having been in active service for ten to twenty years. Plus, none of the University property carried any insurance.

In response, the State Regents set up an annual endowment of $20,000 for building purposes, but with all four University facilities in need of repair and with inadequate heating systems, it was obvious that $20K per year would only scratch the surface.

In 1879, the University Board, in desperation, met and passed the following resolution:

Resolved that in the opinion of this Board the time has come when steps should be taken toward heating the University buildings with steam.

Architect’s stone (J.C. Cochrane) from the new Medical Building – 1882.

In 1881, the Regents responded in kind by voting in additional appropriation of $1500 for stone walks, $1400 for repairing and enlarging University Hospital (Mechanics Academy), and $1800 for heating South Hall. But then, they surprised many by approving the Visiting Committee’s recommendation for an additional $80,000 appropriation to be used for constructing two new buildings and new furniture! Back in Iowa City, Dr. J.C. Shrader, a member of the University medical faculty, secured an additional appropriation of $30,000, and the new Medical Building (1882) was about to become a reality.

The Big Five in 1882.

1882- The Medical Building – Just What the Doctor Ordered.

In the late 1860s, a prominent Davenport surgeon named Washington F. Peck initiated efforts to create a medical college in Iowa City. With support from Judge John F. Dillon (a patient of Peck’s and a graduate of the original Davenport medical college) and the Honorable John P. Irish (Iowa City newspaper editor, state legislator, and a member of the university Board of Trustees), the Iowa City medical department gained approval as the official University medical college in 1870.

1871 Medical Class.

The College of Medicine opened doors for its first class on Sept. 20, 1870, meeting in South Hall (1861), for which an appropriation of $3000 was made in the summer of 1869 for alterations to meet the needs of the new department. The remodeled building included an amphitheater seating over 100 and a basement dissecting room, as well as cabinets and storage facilities for medical supplies and equipment, but it did not provide hospital beds.

College of Medicine Faculty – 1870.

The faculty consisted of eight professors, including Peck as dean and professor of surgery, and Judge Dillon as a professor of medical jurisprudence. The first class consisted of 37 students, including eight women, thus becoming the first public institution in the country to admit women to its class. The curriculum for the first class consisted of a two-week course of lectures followed by 16 weeks of clinical training. Over the next ten years, the College of Medicine grew extensively, particularly when, in 1873, Dr. Peck invited four nuns from Davenport to help him renovate Mechanics Academy, re-making it into the University Hospital, the first teaching hospital west of the Mississippi. Click here for more info.

The Medical Class of 1880.

The Medical Building opened for classes in 1882. A state-of-the-art facility, it offered students and faculty a place to learn and grow.

1883 – Dissection Amphitheater.
1890 Training Sessions.
Spring of 1895 – Pasteur Bacteriology Class Lab.
1896 Surgical Clinic.

Learning Could Still Be Fun.

Doctor Rockwood is found in a bit of peril.

This parody, produced by the medical students during the 1887-1888 school year, illustrates how the class felt about Dr. Rockwood, who was the lecturer in chemistry class. Apparently, the students were threatening to hold Rockwood out the window of the amphitheater until he promised not to return. Fortunately, President Schaeffer stepped in, took charge, reassigning Rockwood as his personal assistant, thus ending the student uprising!

The Turn-of-the-Century Dilemma.

1899 – University Square. From left to right – Medical Building, South Hall, Old Capitol, North Hall, and Science Hall.

As the 18th century was drawing to an end, an evaluation of University buildings and grounds was set at $400,000. But even so, a picture of the University campus at that time showed more limitations than assets. The inadequacy of hospital accommodations at Mechanics Academy was limiting the growth potential of the Medical and Homeopathic Departments, and the Dental Department, working out of a crowded South Hall, had been forced to limit admissions due to lack of space. Some concrete achievement was discernible, nevertheless, in the nine years of President Pickard’s tenure (1878-1887), only four structures had been erected: the first Homeopathic Medical Building (1878), a boiler house (1882), the Medical Building (1882), and Science Hall (1885). In spite of the addition of these new facilities, acute shortages existed, especially in classroom, office and laboratory space. Urgent also were the needs for a gymnasium, athletic field, and assembly hall.

Yet as bad as all this seemed, things got much worse before it got better. Case in point?

Sunday, March 10, 1901.

Sadly, tragedy fell on March 10, 1901, when the 19-year old Medical Building, along with the adjoining South Hall, were completely destroyed by fire.

Iowa City historian, Bob Hibbs, tells the story…

The fire alarm sounded at 2:15 a.m. Sunday, March 10, 1901, stirring the community to action during a nasty spring rain and sleet storm as flames enveloped (the) Medical Building along Washington Street on the southern edge of the main campus area.  It threatened South Hall located just 26 feet away and the Kirkwood Hotel across (Washington) street. There also was fear for Old Capitol itself.  Explosion of chemicals in the medical school’s laboratory awakened many to action. Students, faculty and townspeople rushed to empty South Hall of its engineering college equipment and library as well as the ornate furnishings in the top floor literary society rooms. A heavy flow of water was set up on large engineering school equipment in the basement. As a result, these materials and equipment were saved despite the total loss of South Hall as flames engulfed it just minutes later. Water was spread on the Kirkwood and it was spared. The wooden window trim of the (new) Liberal Arts Building (Schaeffer Hall) sustained limited damage and had to be replaced, but the as yet unoccupied building was spared. Old Capitol likewise was spared.

“If it had not been for the rain and sleet, the livery barn and Kirkwood Hotel would very probably have gone the way of the two university buildings,” commented the University Vidette-Reporter newspaper. The Kirkwood name was used by the Burkley family on the then 60-room Burkley Hotel between 1892 and 1902, otherwise operated as the Burkley from 1863 to 1974. The med school lost everything – its entire library, 14 cadavers, numerous anatomy specimens and considerable equipment. The fire was out before daybreak, which brought with it realization of the disaster.

The March 12, 1901 Vidette-Reporter article reported…

$113,555 lost by Fire Sunday Morning—Blaze started from incubator in north room of medical building—Loss of South Hall due to lack of hose—Most of its contents saved.

Shortly after two o’clock Sunday morning the medical building of the University of Iowa was discovered on fire. Within an hour, the four corners and portions of the east wall were all that was left of two of Iowa’s oldest and most historic buildings. One hundred thousand dollars will cover the loss, except the musical museum which can hardly be replaced at any price.

In his 1988 pictorial history of the University, John Gerber reports that medical school faculty member Walter Bierring later would write: “Already on that Sunday morning the vision was clear. Phoenix-like, there would rise from the ashes a greater medical school than ever before.”

Historian Katherine Bates reflects upon the demise of the Medical Building this way…

The Old Capitol still stood serene and beautiful upon the hill above the Iowa River, looking down upon the ashes. Few of the curious onlookers that Sunday morning realized that the old era of buildings had ended, and that both the physical and spiritual University was entering upon a new age.

So. . . What Stands on this Spot Today?

After the 1901 fire, when both the Medical Building and South Hall were destroyed, classroom space was at a premium. This problem proved to be a perfect assignment for the Engineering Department. As soon as the smoke cleared and the debris pulled away, students were at work, building two temporary structures directly over the foundations of the burned out buildings.

Mining Engineering Laboratory (1901 – 1908). Built on the foundation of the Medical Building, this temporary facility served until its demise in 1908, making way for the Physics Building (MacLean).

1902pentacrest

The State University of Iowa Campus in 1905.

1908President MacLean at the cornerstone ceremonies for the new Physics Building (MacLean Hall) on the south west corner of The Pentacrest (note The Sheep Shed, built on the foundation of South Hall, directly behind the ceremony).

Uncovering a Murder Mystery?

When workers were excavating the area where South Hall and Mechanics Academy had been, they came upon the discovery of human bones, which immediately halted construction. For a while, University and city officials wondered if they had come across an old crime scene, but alas, after further investigation, it was determined that the bones were simply refuse from South Hall’s anatomical lab. President MacLean ordered them quietly disposed of so construction could resume. Case solved!

A current view of where the Mechanics Building stood off Capitol Street on University Square (between MacLean Hall (left) and Schaeffer Hall (right).
The two cornerstones from the Mechanics Academy (right) and the Medical Building (left) are used in the east entryway to the Medical Laboratories Building (1927).

While the Medical Building is, sadly, no longer with us, the original architect stone, with the name, J.C. Cochrane engraved, is now embedded in the wall of the east entrance of the present day Medical Laboratories Building (1927) located in the Hospital complex on the west side of the river. The sealed box taken from the architect’s stone is in the Medical Historical Museum.

Medical Laboratories Building -1927.

Here’s to the Medical Building . . . gone, but never forgotten.


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

History of the State University of Iowa: Aspects of the Physical Structure, Katherine V. Bates, MA (Master of Arts) thesis, State University of Iowa, 1949, pp 27-29

University of Iowa Libraries: Iowa Digital Library website

Carver College of Medicine: History website

The Iowa City Past website

Saturday Postcard 199: University Medical Building, 1882-1901, Bob Hibbs, June 21, 2003

Little-Known Stories of Art and Architecture on UI Campus, Dick Hakes, Iowa City Press Citizen, December 30, 2019


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