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This latest in the Fred Rider Cotten Popular History series from the Texas State Historical Association explores the history of the iconic building at the center of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. First opened in 1891, the building is a national landmark and the oldest surviving continuously occupied medical school building in the country. Appropriately, the building was dedicated to Ashbel Smith in 1949, since there probably would not have been a medical school at Galveston without Smith’s ardent support.
This little book offers the best history of the Galveston medical school written so far. It is brief, devoid of all the boring details, yet interesting and enjoyable. Beginning before the Civil War as a proprietary school, the medical school at Galveston grew intermittently in reputation and excellence until it came under the aegis of the Texas university system in 1881. In 1901, the Flexnor report on all the medical schools in the United States stated that the University of Texas at Galveston was the “only school in Texas fit to continue in the education of physicians.” The school has continued to educate the majority of Texas physicians for most of the last century.
In telling the school’s story, the author outlines the career of Nicholas Clayton, the architect who built Ashbel Smith Hall. Clayton became Galveston’s premier architect and builder, erecting over 225 buildings in Galveston alone over his thirty-year career. He embraced the high Victorian style with all its ornamental detail. Old Red is an example of his Romanesque Victorian style. The building was designed after Clayton toured other medical school campuses and incorporated all the latest improvements, including sky-lit dissecting rooms on the top floor.
The Ashbel Smith building has served numerous purposes over the years. Until the last few decades, all the medical students had their basic science classes in Old Red. The pharmacy and nursing schools were also initially based in the structure. [End Page 318] The building consisted of three classrooms, anatomy dissection rooms, laboratories, and offices. The building has always served as classrooms, not as a hospital. Next door was Sealy Hospital, finished about the same time and also built by Nicholas Clayton. Initially the whole medical school, administration, and classes shared the building. But, over time they have flowed out to other buildings, leaving the offices in Old Red to ancillary services—except for anatomy. For over a hundred years medical students have climbed the same stairs to their anatomy lectures and to the dissection labs on the top floor. The lecture halls are just like one would expect in schools of the time with steep multistoried seating looking down on the lecture podium.
Hurricanes have repeatedly plummeted Galveston, but Old Red has withstood them all, including the 1900 hurricane that devastated the rest of the city. Repeatedly, the major damage to the building generally has been to the roof and the basement, which usually floods. One would think the administration would learn that the basement is not a good place for the library. After each disaster, including the Texas City explosion, the students, faculty, and administration have rushed to provide exceptional medical care to the victims.