“We’re on the campus of Castleton University, and right behind us is one of the oldest buildings on campus,” Vermont Historical Society executive director Steve Perkins said. “In fact, it was the first medical school in the state of Vermont.”
“Medical education looked a great deal different 200 years ago from what we might recognize today,” Mike Hoey noted.
“We’re talking really early 19th century in the United States, and medical education was starting to enter a time when students did go to school rather than learning through an apprenticeship,” Perkins said. “Every New England state at the time had a medical school except for Vermont. There were three doctors who lived in and around Castleton — Selah Gridley, Theodore Woodward and John Cazier. They saw a need for that in Vermont and thought that, ‘hey, we could also make some money doing this. It’s a private school, and Castleton would be a great place because it’s right on the New York border’ (making it possible to draw students from both the Green Mountain State and New York’s North Country).
“And education, at the time, was not clinical in the way we think of medical school now,” Perkins continued. “It was lecture-based, so students would come and they would spend a term hearing lectures from various doctors. Then they’d have a couple of reading terms where they had to read books, and of course, there was a library in here as well. Then, to complete their education, they would go and they would join a practicing doctor somewhere in the country for that hands-on education. But, 1818 — that’s when it was founded (as Castleton Medical Aacdemy).”
“Some of the students professed to engaging in an activity as part of their course of study that today, we would consider a felony,” Hoey said.
“Yes, and you hear a lot of this,” Perkins replied. “It happened in England and certainly in the United States. Medical students needed bodies so that they could study anatomy. Part of their study was dissection, but you couldn’t readily get bodies and so, often they were taken from cemeteries or crypts, and that did take place in and around Castleton. We have notebooks from some of these early students where they kept notes on their lectures but also talked about their activities, and clearly stated where they were acquiring bodies from.”
Hoey asked, “What, later in the 19th century, led to the demise of this institution and to it being supplanted by another?”
“The UVM (Larner) College of Medicine opened in 1822 — so, shortly after this — and it continued to rise,” Perkins answered. “I think its connection with the state university and also being in Burlington, which by the middle of the 19th century just kind of exploded in population, made it a much more prominent school. This one started to decline, and by the outbreak of the Civil War it wasn’t economically feasible to have a school anymore, so 1861 was the last class to graduate. At that time, it was called the Castleton Medical College.”
“By any name, though, the institution certainly blazed quite a trail,” Hoey observed.
“Training many, many doctors through a number of generations here in Vermont,” Perkins agreed.