The Making of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center

By Sylvia Wrobel
Retiree, Woodruff Health Sciences Center Communications


Thanks to the incorporation, redirection, and expansion of well-established community programs in Atlanta, by the mid-twentieth century Emory University had a medical school full of doctors and two hospitals where they could practice, one on campus (staffed only by Emory faculty) and the other in midtown (where faculty and community doctors worked side by side).

Growing at home and through affiliations

Emory physicians also provided -- and continue to provide -- the majority of physician care in many of the city's biggest public/private hospitals. In 1946, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center asked Emory doctors to be responsible for patient care in exchange for allowing the medical school to use VA facilities for teaching and research.

In 1954, the sixty-four-acre Wesley Woods campus, founded to meet housing and healthcare needs of the elderly, was built adjacent to the Emory campus, opening the door for Emory to become a hub for pioneering advances in geriatric care and research. At the other end of the patient spectrum, the Henrietta Egleston Hospital for Children (now Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston) relocated to the Emory campus in 1959.

In 1937, annoyed that Atlantans suffering from cancer had to travel out of state to the Johns Hopkins University hospital and elsewhere for care, Robert Woodruff had built the Winship Clinic for Neoplastic Diseases. ("Cancer" then had a stigma attached to it, so the term "neoplastic disease" was used to ensure that patients would actually come to the clinic.)

By mid-century, some forty years after Emory University was chartered, the family of institutions and programs focused on health professional education and patient care had grown rapidly. The units operated largely on their own, but beginning in 1953 they were overseen and coordinated by a Health Services Board -- essentially a committee of the University Board of Trustees -- with a chief administrator running the complex operation.

In 1966, the trustees created the Woodruff Medical Center (now the Woodruff Health Sciences Center) as a more formal umbrella organization for the three schools (medical, nursing, and dental), two hospitals, clinic, and primate research center, as well as the relationships with Atlanta's public/private hospitals and other organizations.

WHSC created a structure for the medical school's rapidly expanding programs to train doctors not only at Emory’s own hospitals but also at the affiliated hospitals -- Grady, VAMC, Egleston Children's Hospital, and Wesley Woods Center, each an institution with its own mission and needs. The relationship with Grady was both the oldest -- faculty in the Atlanta Medical College and later Emory School of Medicine had cared for Grady patients since the public hospital opened in 1892 -- and the most complex. The wide range of care provided at Grady clinched Emory’s reputation as a teaching institution and enhanced care across Georgia, where one of every four practicing physicians could boast of having learned hands-on medicine at the hospital.

Helping the CDC get its start

The Rollins School of Public Health may have been a latecomer, but Emory’s efforts toward public health had begun early and reached far, with the help of the ubiquitous Robert Woodruff. His first interest in public health was piqued by malaria, because of its impact on south Georgia, where he had a hunting preserve, Ichauway Plantation. Always a man of action, he hired nurses, bought quinine to treat everyone in the county, and gave Emory faculty members money to study how malaria was transmitted. In 1942, the federal government established in Atlanta the Office of Malaria Control in War Areas, to train experts in controlling mosquitoes in areas of military importance. When the war ended, this program became a permanent institution, then called the Communicable Diseases Center. To forestall possible relocation of this center to Washington, D.C., Woodruff bought fifteen acres next to Emory and gave the property to the University to "sell" to the government. With access to CDC professionals as adjunct faculty, and with triumphs like the defeat of polio bringing the value of public health to the public eye, the medical school's small Department of Community Health began to expand, eventually becoming a division. The School of Public Health opened in 1990.

In its youth and adolescence, Emory did not think of itself as a research institution. In the WHSC, the goals were preparation of new generations of doctors and nurses and providing and constantly improving healthcare for Atlanta and the region. True, the Woodruff Memorial Research Building had been constructed in 1952 to help basic and clinical departments do some research, and the incorporation of the Yerkes Primate Research Center in 1956 added more research. True, in 1960, Emory University Hospital was chosen as one of eight national clinical research centers. The medical school's basic science Ph.D. programs were strong, and the first joint M.D./Ph.D. degree was granted in 1964, another sign of appreciation for research in clinical care. But in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, when the newly formed National Institutes of Health began pouring out Cold War-era research dollars on willing institutions, Emory held back.

Another life-changing gift

In 1979, the Woodruff gift offered Emory a chance to grow in new directions. New research-minded medical deans in turn looked for research-minded faculty. Recruitment and retention, not to mention the work itself, required research facilities, and both the Woodruff Foundation and other donors stepped up.

The early founders of the first components of what would become the Woodruff Health Sciences Center might well be astonished by what the center has become, what it has accomplished, and the ambitious plans it has for the future. What would not surprise them is that it the WHSC continues its deep immersion into the community from which so much of it sprang. The hope for a healthier community that animated those early Atlantans to charter a medical school in 1854 continues to flourish, even as it is realized in more powerful ways each year.