ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The 50th anniversary celebration of the founding of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine has begun, and it promises to be a season warm with nostalgia and flush with history.
A veritable who’s who of the state’s medical establishment kicked off the celebration last week by paying tribute to the medical and educational pioneers who, in the late 1950s and early ’60s, realized New Mexico needed its own medical school, then went to work to see their dream come true.
The event Thursday evening – at the Hotel Andaluz in Downtown Albuquerque – also recognized some of the accomplishments the school has achieved since the first students crossed its threshold in 1964.
Master of Ceremonies Jeffrey Griffith noted that 40 percent of New Mexico’s physicians have received their training at the School of Medicine. That’s quite a return on the investment, he said.
The school has had four deans in its half-century, and only two in the past 42 years. Dr. Paul Roth, now in his 20th year, is the longest serving medical school dean in the United States.
At the moment he was introduced, a slide of Roth, taken in 1979 when – unlike today – he sported a full head of hair, appeared on the large screen behind him, drawing hearty chuckles from the crowd – and from Roth.
“I don’t know who that is,” he quipped. “I just somehow don’t relate to that picture.”
Dr. James Martinez, president of the New Mexico Medical Society and a graduate of UNM’s medical school, said the school has kept the faith with the original mission, to serve all New Mexicans, regardless of their status in life or society.
Three historians highlighted milestones of the state’s only School of Medicine. Providing historical context, Jake Spidle Jr. said that in the 100-year period beginning about 1840, some 3,000 doctors from the eastern United States made their way to New Mexico. They were drawn by the Santa Fe Trail, the U.S. Army, a sense of adventure and pioneering spirit and a desire to do battle with tuberculosis.
In the 1890s, there were perhaps 100 doctors in the state, Spidle said. By the time of statehood, in 1912, the number had grown to 300. As late as the 1920s, Albuquerque and Chicago had roughly the same ratio of physicians per capita.
But none was home-grown.
Former newspaperman Michael Joe Dupont told the audience that when New Mexico opened an office of the American Medical Association in 1949, it was the last state to do so. He singled out Ralph Marshall, the first executive director of the New Mexico Medical Society, during whose tenure the society lobbied for the creation of the School of Medicine.
Dupont also recognized Dr. Lewis Overton, who taught and practiced orthopedic surgery, for helping then-UNM President Thomas Popejoy convince lawmakers to do their part in starting the school.
A third historian, Dr. Dora Wang, was not alone in noting that the school’s first buildings were a former 7-Up bottling plant and an abandoned mortuary.
The first state allocation was $25,000 for a two-year school. It was later changed to four years. Wang quoted Reginald Fitz III, the founding dean, on the school’s location: “Over my dead body will you build the medical school on the south campus.”
Nonetheless, Fitz was focused on people and innovation, not buildings or fundraising, Wang said.
At the close of the event, Roth honored several of the school’s founders, most of whom are now gone. Daughters, sons, and even a granddaughter accepted the awards for their forebears.