The School of Tropical Medicine was established in 1924 because of the need for an institution dedicated to medical research in tropical diseases, which affected the population on a mass scale. The school was a center for post-graduate studies for physicians who wanted to specialize in these illnesses and it became the first educational center of its type in America.
The creation of the School of Tropical Medicine, a precursor to the current School of Medicine at the University of Puerto Rico, resulted from the evolution of a series of commissions created to treat anemia.
In 1899, Bailey K. Ashford, a physician with the United States military, discovered through his research that tropical anemia, or uncinariasis, was caused by a parasite that entered the body through the feet. To control this epidemic, the government created the Puerto Rico Anemia Commission. Its purpose was to study and provide treatment for the disease. The Board consisted of Ashford, W.W. King and Pedro Gutiérrez Igaravídez, director of the Bayamón Hospital, who had also studied the disease.
Under the commission’s direction, Anemia Dispensary Service centers were created around the island. These centers also received numerous visits from patients afflicted with other tropical diseases, so it was decided not to limit treatment only to anemia.
To improve the study and treatment of endemic illnesses, the government ordered a reorganization of the Dispensary Services, which resulted in the creation of the Tropical and Transmittable Diseases Service.
This new institution, which was directed by Dr. Gutiérrez Igaravídez, established a laboratory in each of the seven senatorial districts. The physicians who directed the centers had to compete for the post by passing a test offered by the Puerto Rico Civil Service. In 1912, this institution was transformed into the Institute of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, with headquarters in the basement of the Casa Rosa building in Old San Juan.
The founders of the institution proposed incorporating an educational component into the entity to improve its effectiveness. On June 23, 1924, Joint Resolution Number 3 ordered the creation of the School of Tropical Medicine as part of the University of Puerto Rico. The resolution also stipulated that all of the property of the Institute of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene would be transferred to the school and that a building appropriate for the school’s facilities would be built on a lot adjacent to the Capitol in Puerta de Tierra. The construction of the complex was completed in May of 1926. The first courses began on October 1 of that year.
The School of Tropical Medicine was the first school in America that was founded for the purpose of researching and training physicians in that particular specialty. A five-member Special Board of Trustees was in charge of the administration of the institution. The University of Puerto Rico Board of Trustees elected three of the Board members while the other two were appointed by Columbia University of New York, which had reached an agreement (1925) to help operate the school.
The agreement stipulated that Columbia University had the authority to establish institutional policy and would be in charge of appointing the faculty, with the approval of the University of Puerto Rico. The costs, however, were paid by the island government while Columbia University was responsible for paying the director’s salary and sending professors who could offer courses that the regular professors were not prepared to offer.
The school had a library and laboratories for bacteriology, chemistry, pathology and parasitology. In 1929, a teaching hospital with 40 beds was added.
The department and laboratory for the prevention of Bubonic plague and the Health Department’s Island Leper Colony were put at the school’s disposition. When research was done in rural areas, temporary laboratories were built to conduct the studies.
The School of Tropical Medicine became the main research institution in its field, which attracted a large number of graduate students and researchers from various parts of the world. In 1941, it began to offer graduate courses in public health. It later offered Masters programs in public health education and public health nursing.
Because of the need for an educational institution to train doctors and health professionals, the Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly approved Law Number 378 on May 15, 1949, which replaced the act that created the School of Tropical Medicine and created the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine.
Despite the opposition of the School of Tropical Medicine’s administration and teaching faculty, the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine was founded on August 21, 1950 and occupied the complex in Puerta de Tierra, ending an era of Puerto Rican scientific research.
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 12, 2014.
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