200-Year-Old Medical Building Still Healthy After All These Years

Posted on: November 13th, 2012 by David Weible

Davidge Hall circa 1891.

This November marks 200 years since Davidge Hall was built to house the College of Medicine of Maryland in Baltimore, which was rechartered as the University of Maryland when it opened in 1812. And though the medical profession has come a long way from bloodletting, and physicians no longer compete with apothecaries and barbers for customers, the building itself hasn’t changed much.

Really the only significant change to the structure -- which replicated a blueprint at the University of Pennsylvania developed by Benjamin Latrobe, the second architect of the Capitol and friend of Thomas Jefferson -- has been the demolition of the 15-foot-high security wall that once ringed its perimeter, aimed at thwarting attacks from angry mobs.

"People weren’t donating their bodies to science and you didn’t have an anatomy class without a body, so we resorted to grave robbers at that time," says Larry Pitrof, executive director of what is now the Medical Alumni Association of the University of Maryland, which is housed in the structure. "[Using cadavers] was really contrary to religious beliefs back then, so there was a lot of public opposition [to the school]."

He’s not kidding either. In 1807, just four blocks from the future site of the school, a flock of hooligans riled by similar practices destroyed the anatomic theater of John Davidge. It was that event that galvanized a group of local physicians to lobby the state for a charter for a medical school -- the building named after, you guessed it,  Davidge himself -- and personally fund its construction.

Anatomical Hall, the third-floor lecture hall.

For the same reason, many areas of Davidge Hall that were used for dissections remained secret until the use of cadavers became more acceptable around the beginning of the 1900s.

Now, two centuries after classes began, Davidge Hall is the oldest surviving continually used building for medical instruction in the United States. It’s seen wars, multiple hurricanes, and yes, plenty of bodies. Though advances in medical technology, the widespread use of projection screens for educational purposes, and an explosion of student enrollment rendered the structure outdated in the 1950s, the building’s main theater still plays host to medical symposia and conferences on a daily basis.

The last major restoration of the building was completed in 2001 when the roof was replaced and period windows were installed. Going forward, Pitrof says the plan is to completely restore the interior to the way it looked in 1820, when the building was first considered complete. There are also plans to install a new HVAC system, though funding for both projects is yet to be finalized.

"It’s an enduring symbol [of medicine in this country] and it showing no signs of really wearing out yet," says Pitrof.

Davidge Hall today.

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David Weible

David Weible

David Weible is a content specialist for the National Trust, previously with Preservation magazine. He came to D.C. from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.

Architecture, General