Davidge Hall is the most distinctive building on the UMB campus. As the oldest medical school building in continuous use for medical education in the Western Hemisphere, its historic columns and dome are the basis for the logo shared by UMB and the University of Maryland Medical Center.
But what lies inside its walls is still a mystery to many, which is why Larry Pitrof, executive director of the University of Maryland School of Medicine Alumni Association, provided a lecture and tour on May 24, the latest event sponsored by UMB’s Council for the Arts & Culture. Completed in 1812, Davidge Hall still fascinates faculty, staff, and students, who filled the available 25 slots the first day the notice was posted.
“I actually walked through here 30 years ago and am curious to see what has changed,” said Larry Miller, a longtime member of financial services and the first to arrive. “It was fascinating then; I remember the acoustics in one room where someone could whisper at one end and be heard at the other. That and the skeleton in the doorway,” he said with a laugh.
Pitrof said there are lots of skeletons in the Davidge Hall closet. Going over the building’s history in Chemical Hall while the visitors munched on boxed lunches, he spoke of how the first building used by Dr. John Beale Davidge to teach anatomy was destroyed by an angry mob citing the dissection of cadavers as the desecration of human remains. Grave digging was the prime source of cadavers then.
When 10 percent of Baltimore City’s population died of yellow fever in the late 1790s, it inspired support for an entity to bring together those like Dr. Davidge who understood the mysteries of medicine, and the School of Medicine, the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and Davidge Hall came to be. “Dr. Davidge and his colleagues paid about $40,000 to have the hall built on land that was donated,” Pitrof recalled.
Design of the building exhibits characteristics found in the architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who built America’s first anatomical theater at the University of Pennsylvania in 1806, said Pitrof, who showed side-by-side slides of the two buildings. Such a “classical looking building would elevate the medical profession at the time,” he said.
Indeed, medicine in the early 1800s wasn’t the respected field it is today. “Remedies were crude then — cupping and bleeding. You went to the hospital to die, not to be cured,” Pitrof said. Later he added, “Layer upon layer is how medicine is based. The benefits we enjoy today are all based on what happened then and our School of Medicine is a big contributor to that.”
After the history lesson, Pitrof discussed necessary renovations for Davidge Hall, starting with the exterior (roof problems despite a 2002 restoration) and the interior (complete overhaul of the heating and cooling system). The School of Medicine and its Alumni Association is raising $5 million through naming opportunities but the overall Davidge renovation is expected to cost $25 million.
The need for repairs became more apparent when the group moved to the Anatomical Hall, directly above Chemical Hall. Aside from their rising circular seating, the two rooms couldn’t be more different in ambience. Chemical Hall is dark, almost foreboding. Anatomical Hall, a room with the great acoustics Miller remembered, is energetically bright with light streaming through the circular skylights and domed ceiling. “The jewel of the building,” in Pitrof’s eyes.
That once proud ceiling of decorative semicircles and rosette patterns that saw Marquis de Lafayette awarded the first honorary doctorate from the university in 1824 has fallen on hard times, with water damage and decay at the base of the dome forming a patchwork of problems.
In the next couple of months we hope the exterior work will begin,” Pitrof said. After answering a few questions, he dismissed the group to check out the various displays in the building — the Allan Burns collection of medical artifacts, portraits of early SOM deans, eyewear and World War II collections, and much more.
Asked the reason for the tour, Pitrof replied, “Despite its distinction as America’s oldest existing medical teaching facility, there is a surprisingly large segment of our campus community that has never visited the building. This tour is part of a larger campus effort to engage colleagues in a manner that enriches their experience and makes them even more proud of our university.”
Lingling Sun, a laboratory research specialist in the Institute of Human Virology, said it did exactly that for her. “I knew of the symbol, now I know the history of Davidge Hall,” she said. “I’m proud to be part of the School of Medicine.”
Miller was happy to get an updated look at the building. “I don’t remember all the display cases. This was real interesting.”
And there were several visitors like Karen Hornick from the Department of Medicine who had only had brief glimpses of Davidge Hall previously. “I finally made it,” she said with a smile. “The tour was great. I’d definitely recommend it.”
Learn more about UMB’s Council for the Arts & Culture.
by Chris Zang