University to celebrate impact, history of ‘50 Years of Medicine at Brown’

A kickoff event on Friday, April 29, will begin a 15-month celebration of the Warren Alpert Medical School’s evolution and its plans for the future.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On March 10, 1972, the Corporation of Brown University approved the creation of a four-year medical education program, paving the way for Rhode Island’s first and only medical school. Fifty years later, the University is launching a celebration of decades of impact in medical education and research, the contributions of the 3,893 physicians who have earned M.D.s and the innovative path ahead for the Warren Alpert Medical School.

BDH MD vote
The March 13, 1972, issue of the Brown Daily Herald reported on the Corporation vote approving the creation of a four-year medical education program at Brown.
“Whether caring for patients in Rhode Island’s hospitals and clinics, battling health crises around the world or turning scientific discoveries into medical breakthroughs, Brown medical school students, faculty, alumni and staff have built a half-century track record of positive impact,” said President Christina H. Paxson. “Brown’s contributions to health and medicine far exceed what even the most optimistic program founders might have envisioned in 1972. The Warren Alpert Medical School is an inspiring national and global leader, and this 50-year celebration marks a milestone for the entire University community to reflect on both its history and its future.”

The “50 Years of Medicine at Brown” celebration will kick off with a community event on the evening of Friday, April 29 and continue through June 2023, concluding the end of the next academic year. A series of celebratory, reflective and scholarly activities will honor distinctive and innovative elements of Brown’s approach to medical training and biomedical innovation, characterized by a unique focus on promoting the health of individuals and communities through service to society. This is reflected in the medical program’s close relationship with Tougaloo College, a historically black college in Mississippi; its focus on transformative and socially responsible education, health care delivery and biomedical research; and the local and global contributions of its physician-scientists working toward improved clinical practice, treatments and cures.

Dr. Michele G. Cyr, senior associate dean for academic affairs at the medical school and chair of the 50 Years of Medicine Steering Committee, said the celebration will explore the school's history and how its design has shaped not only the school’s evolution over 50 years, but also served as an indication of where the field of medicine would eventually go. According to Cyr, the school has remained committed to the ethos of “embracing liberal arts education as essential to developing compassionate, humanistic physicians.”

“Focusing on the social as well as the personal dimensions that affect an individual’s health was a novel concept 50 years ago,” Cyr said. “The founders were ahead of their time to be thinking about that as central to medical education at Brown. But what they started in 1972 has now been widely adopted — today, any well-trained physician is constantly factoring in the ‘social determinants’ of health as they approach a person’s care.”

Paxson and Brown’s new dean of medicine and biological sciences, Dr. Mukesh K. Jain, will invite the Brown campus to join the broader community of medical school students and families, faculty and staff, cohorts of alumni and residents from across the decades, clinical and research partners in Brown’s affiliated teaching hospitals, and friends from health organizations, the city, state and region to participate in the celebration events from the April 29 kickoff to the June 2023 culmination. The celebration is expected to include special lectures, seminars, exhibitions and other themed events.

“This is an incredibly exciting time to join the Warren Alpert Medical School community,” said Jain, who began his term as dean on March 1. “Over the coming 15 months, we’ll be celebrating the impressive history of the medical school, but also looking ahead to the next 50 years. With the strengths of our faculty and students, University leaders so clearly invested in the biomedical ecosystem, and the continued support of the alumni community, I truly feel that there is limitless potential here.”

“ We're part of a legacy of many, many students who have graduated from Brown and who have gone on to do amazing things. Medicine at Brown is something so much more than four years of medical school. ”

Blaire Byg Class of 2024 medical student

A half-century of impact

Since its launch in 1972, Brown’s medical school has built a 50-year track record of making a positive impact.

Brown researchers, physician-scientists and medical trainees are making discoveries that transform care for patients and families in real ways, with new basic science and clinical research centers formed in recent years to focus on Alzheimer’s disease, digital medicine, vaccine biology, and most recently, cancer. The Legorreta Cancer Center at Brown, for example, brings together researchers, clinicians and public health scientists to develop treatments and improve understanding of a host of different cancers. And the Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research, a collaboration of the medical school and Brown’s Carney Institute for Brain Science, is leading research from the molecular level through the development of drugs to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s.

Wafik El-Deiry Lab
Under the direction of Dr. Wafik El-Deiry, the Legorreta Cancer Center at Brown focuses efforts on world-class research, developing new therapeutics and addressing patients’ needs. 

In Rhode Island, Brown has strengthened the quality of the health care workforce by training, recruiting and retaining top physicians that practice in the state. Approximately 60% of doctors in the state have an affiliation with the medical school through teaching or research, and 50% of physicians who completed both medical school and residency at Brown are actively practicing in Rhode Island. The University has far-reaching medical education and research affiliations with hospitals and health care facilities run by the Lifespan and Care New England health systems, the Providence V.A. Medical Center and Hope Health. And Brown Physicians, Inc., a physician-led federation formed in partnership with the medical school, employs more than 500 doctors and is helping to achieve greater integration of patient care, research and education across Rhode Island’s health care sector.

By attracting federal grants and commercial investments in biomedical research and innovation, Brown contributes to the state’s economic development while working to solve medical challenges that affect patients across the globe. External funding for biomedical research at Brown has increased 138 percent since 2013, to a total of $84.1 million in Fiscal Year 2021. Under the leadership of Dr. Jack A. Elias, who served as dean from 2013 to 2022, the school’s research portfolio shifted toward translational science, which focuses on moving scientific discoveries out of the lab and developing treatments and other applications that benefit patients in need.

Those developments mark a pronounced shift from the 1960s, when Rhode Island was among only a few states that didn’t have its own medical school, and residents had to travel outside the state for specialized care. Without an academic partner, local hospitals could not attract the type of physicians needed to provide that care. And with no institution leading biomedical research, federal agencies awarded grant dollars to other states.

Focusing on the social as well as the personal dimensions that affect an individual’s health was a novel concept 50 years ... the founders were ahead of their time to be thinking about that as central to medical education at Brown.

Dr. Michele G. Cyr Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affair, Division of Biology and Medicine
Michele Cyr

Those were among the factors that led Brown to make small initial investments in medical training beginning in the mid-1960s. After years of incremental steps, such as starting a master’s of medical science degree program, and numerous conversations with state officials, a plan to create a full medical degree program was voted upon by the full Brown faculty and then the Corporation, Brown’s governing body, in 1972. In a statement after the vote, the Corporation wrote: “It is this integration of medical education with the social sciences, humanities and other sciences which seems to us the most important feature of the new program and the one which promises to give it a special niche in medical education on the national scene.”

Later that year, the American Medical Association / Association of American Medical College’s Liaison Committee on Medical Education approved the program’s curriculum, and Brown’s medical school was born. Full accreditation followed in 1975, when the first class of M.D.s graduated.

The pioneer for an inclusive medical curriculum

Blaire Byg, a Class of 2024 medical student and a member of the 50 Years of Medicine at Brown steering committee, said the anniversary offers a chance to celebrate the innate focus on serving the community that permeates so much of the research, advocacy and volunteer work of students at Brown. Byg said that unlike schools in larger cities, Brown’s role in Providence offers the opportunity to truly become a part of a local community in a way that has a positive impact on patients and residents.

“Sometimes in medical school, our views can get a bit myopic, where you're focused on learning all the cranial nerves or the different arteries in the gastrointestinal system,” Byg said. “This celebration is an excellent opportunity to remind ourselves that as students, we’re part of something that's much bigger — a medical community that spans the medical school and all the hospitals in Rhode Island, and one that spans time, too. We're part of a legacy of many, many students who have graduated from Brown and who have gone on to do amazing things. Medicine at Brown is something so much more than four years of medical school.”

Medical student listens to baby's breathing
Throughout its history, the medical school has embraced the University’s emphasis on student-directed inquiry and innovative curricula to help prepare the next generation of effective physicians. 

Cyr said that medical education as a whole has now recognized, just as Brown did early, the importance of the “soft sciences.” In 2015, the Medical College Admission Test, which most students take as part of the medical school admission process, added knowledge of social and behavioral sciences (not just life and physical sciences) to its assessments — recognizing on a national level the importance of the social and behavioral sciences to the pursuit of an M.D., much in the way Brown did upon the creation of its program a half century earlier.

Throughout its history, the medical school also has embraced the University’s emphasis on student-directed inquiry and innovative curricula. In the mid-1980s, Brown created the Program in Liberal Medical Education, which admits students to both the undergraduate college and the medical school and allows them as undergraduates to take full advantage of the University’s innovative Open Curriculum, without typical pre-med requirements. The Scholarly Concentrations Program allows medical students to engage in independent academic work in their specific area of interest, choosing from topics such as biomedical informatics, caring for underserved communities, and LGBTQ health care and advocacy.

In 2007, a $100 million gift from the Warren Alpert Foundation marked a turning point, and the school was renamed for entrepreneur and philanthropist Warren Alpert. The funds made possible the renovation of the school’s first dedicated home in Providence, a Richmond Street building that has been one of the linchpins in the transformation of the city’s Jewelry District into a hub for innovation and industry. It has provided millions of dollars for faculty recruitment and research. In 2016, with an additional $27 million gift from the foundation, Brown rebuilt and expanded its M.D./Ph.D. program for physician-scientists.

Community-wide celebration

Details on the April 29 event will be posted to Events@Brown in March, and the steering committee will share information on the full suite of activities as plans develop.

“Our goal is that the entire community will join us in these opportunities to learn more about the medical school and to recognize its contributions to the University, the state and the world,” Jain said. “The world has learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that we need cutting-edge research and a compassionate health care workforce more than ever. There is so much to celebrate and look forward to at the Warren Alpert Medical School, and we hope that everyone at Brown will be proud to be part of it.”