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The concept of establishing a medical school at Ohio University goes back almost to the inception of the institution in the early 19th Century. On Aug. 21, 1823, the Board of Trustees passed a resolution forming a committee to “take into consideration the expediency of establishing a Medical School.” The Trustees recommended that since, at that time, there was no medical school in Ohio, one might appropriately be located in Athens.

Accordingly, the trustees set aside a large tract of land west of the College Green for this proposed venture into medical education. The site is today commemorated by a plaque about 250 yards from Grosvenor Hall, which became the first medical school building more than a century later, in 1975. Thus, delayed for 152 years, Ohio University’s medical school finally opened its doors.

The story of how Ohio University became the site of Ohio’s only college of osteopathic medicine is a saga that the trustees of 1823 could hardly have envisioned. It required the coming together in a synergistic fashion of three powerful forces in the Buckeye State — the Ohio General Assembly, the governor and the Ohio osteopathic profession.

The process started in 1972 when the Ohio Osteopathic Association (OOA) House of Delegates passed a resolution calling for the formation of a committee to study the need for, and realistic possibilities of, starting an Ohio osteopathic college. This committee didn’t take nearly as long to see the fruition of its efforts as did the committee established by the Board of Trustees in 1823. In fact, by 1975, the OOA had completed a successful lobbying campaign that resulted in passage in the Ohio General Assembly of Amended House Bill 229 that created Ohio’s only osteopathic medical school as a “constituent part” of Ohio University.

Jon Wills, OOA public relations director (later executive director), watched first-hand the developments that led to the creation of the medical college.

“There was a strong desire among many in the Legislature at that time to help Ohio University out of its trouble [due to sharply declining enrollment], and they also saw the need for a family-medicine-oriented medical school in a medically underserved part of the state,” Wills said. “These two factors together were the key to the success of the amended bill.”

Another factor that many observers felt was a key to final passage of the “college bill” in the Legislature was the six-year dues assessment approved by the OOA House of Delegates in June 1975. This occurred just as the Ohio Senate was considering the bill. It was an unprecedented move by a professional association in the Buckeye State. The $250annual assessment of each member, which eventually resulted in more than $1.2 million in private funds flowing into the medical school, impressed key legislators with the commitment of the osteopathic profession.

Despite this bold move, however, there was still strong opposition to the bill in some quarters. After passage of the bill in the Ohio House by an overwhelming 90-4 margin, it headed for an uncertain future in the Ohio Senate. Perhaps the debate when the bill reached the floor of the senate will best give a sense of the emotion-charged atmosphere surrounding this effort to create just the second osteopathic college at a state university. This debate, which lasted two and a half hours, was the second-longest of the session — exceeded only by that on the budget bill.

“A highlight of the debate was the speech by Sen. Robert Secrest (D-Cambridge),” said George Dunigan, then OOA director of governmental affairs, who later served in the same capacity for the college. “He got up and pointed to a map of his hometown and drew a 30- or 40-mile circle around it. He said that if this bill resulted in just two doctors moving into that economically depressed area, it would be worth it. His oratory was so rousing and his sincerity so evident that the gallery erupted in applause, and it had to be gaveled to silence by then-Lt. Gov. Richard Celeste. “That speech galvanized not only the audience but the senators themselves, who — after defeating several amendments meant to kill the bill — passed it by a 24-6 margin. Then, on Aug. 18 — the last possible day — Republican Gov. James A. Rhodes signed the bill.

On Nov. 16, the day before the legislation was to go into effect, the Ohio University Board of Trustees met and approved a request by President Harry Crewson that the university formally accept the osteopathic college. Crewson had been an early behind-the-scenes supporter of the medical school bill.

Also in November 1975, Gerald A. Faverman, Ph.D., was named acting dean of the new Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine (OU-COM). It was understood from the beginning that he could serve as dean for only a few years because he held a Ph.D. degree and not a D.O. degree. Under Dr. Faverman’s dynamic leadership, the college was able to hire a faculty and key administrators, set up a curriculum, renovate an unused dormitory (Grosvenor Hall), and enroll its first class within less than a year. Many skeptics at the time said that putting a medical school together this quickly, as was required by Amended House Bill 229, was impossible. But in September 1976, the first class of 24 men and women started classes in newly renovated sections of Grosvenor while construction dust and the sound of jackhammers filled the college’s future facilities in Parks and Irvine halls nearby.

From that challenging beginning, a top-flight medical school has emerged. Reviewing the highlights of the administration of each of the college’s deans who succeeded Faverman provides an overview of the school's evolution.

The first administration was that of Frank W. Myers, D.O., named dean Nov. 1, 1977. In his 16 years at the helm, Dr. Myers oversaw many notable achievements, which included developing a statewide hospital network known as the Regional Teaching Centers, graduating the first class of 21 students in June 1980, boosting entering class enrollment to 100 new students each year, expanding the osteopathic medical center in Parks Hall into a comprehensive multi-specialty outpatient clinic, establishing the nation’s third simulated patient laboratory for the initial training of medical students in clinical contact, and founding the Somatic Dysfunction Research Institute to enhance clinical research into osteopathic manipulative treatment and the musculoskeletal system.  

Also during Dr. Myers’ tenure, the school was consistently rated as one of the top schools in the nation in the percentage of graduating physicians who went into family practice or another primary care field. This was consistent with the legislative mandate that instructed the school to emphasize the training of family physicians for underserved areas of Ohio. 

Dr. Myers also served for 15 years as the voice and medical authority for the “Family Health” radio series that for decades was broadcast on 200 to 300 stations throughout the U.S. as well as the Armed Forces Radio Network. Under his leadership, a companion project, the “Family Medicine” newspaper column, emerged and still appears weekly in about 150 papers. 

On Aug. 1, 1993, Barbara Ross-Lee, D.O., was appointed dean to replace Dr. Myers, who had announced his intentions to resign the deanship earlier in the year. Dr. Ross-Lee brought a dynamism to the position that resulted in much change and a number of positive initiatives that placed the college on the cutting-edge of medical education innovation and reform.  

She also helped to put the school on the map with her media savvy and the instant fame that her hiring entailed. The latter was due mainly to two factors: Dr. Ross-Lee was the first African-American woman to head a U.S. medical school, and also she came from a famous family — one of her younger sisters is Motown great Diana Ross. Within days of her arrival in Athens, the national media were clamoring for interviews, and stories about the college began appearing in prestigious media outlets like USA Today, Jet magazine and Ohio Magazine as well as the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the New York Times.  

During her tenure, the college developed the Centers for Osteopathic Research and Education on the foundation of the former regional teaching center concept. The CORE, as it became known, was the first Osteopathic Postdoctoral Training Institute, a then-new system to structure and accredit osteopathic graduate medical education. Other notable accomplishments included establishing two curricular paths that emphasized active student participation and a lifelong continuum of learning, creating an independent Department of Biomedical Sciences within the medical school to replace an integrated model with dual appointments that had outlived its usefulness, and founding the Osteopathic Heritage Health Policy Fellowship Program to prepare osteopathic physicians for leadership roles in health policy. She was also instrumental in the creation of the Center of Excellence for Multicultural Medicine, the only such federally funded center in Ohio and the only one at an osteopathic college nationwide. 

When Dr. Ross-Lee resigned to become vice president of health sciences and medical affairs at the New York Institute of Technology effective Dec. 31, 2000, Daniel Marazon, D.O., was named interim dean. He served in this capacity for 11 months. He worked hard to effect a smooth transition to a permanent dean and made building college morale and esprit de corps his top priority. His tenure was more than just a caretaker regime, however. In 2001 the college was ranked No. 2 nationally among all medical schools in the percentage of graduates in family medicine residencies, according to a study by the American Medical Student Association Foundation’s annual Primary Care Scorecard.  

On Nov. 15, 2001, longtime faculty member John A. Brose became the college’s fifth dean. His most immediate problems were the pending insolvency of the University Osteopathic Medical Center and a growing malpractice insurance rate crisis. On the first problem, he took bold action to convert the college’s clinical operation — with offices in Athens, Coolville and Nelsonville — into a private corporation run by the college’s clinical faculty. This new entity, called University Medical Associates, went into the black in its first year of operation and led to the expansion of the medical services available in the Athens area. On the second problem, he worked together with university officials to develop a self-insurance system for all but catastrophic coverage. This greatly reduced the premiums being paid by the medical school and was another step in improving the college’s financial outlook.  

Dr. Brose also emphasized the importance of research, and he oversaw the creation of the J.O. Watson, D.O., Endowed Research Chair, funded by a grant from the Osteopathic Heritage Foundations. This position, along with adding other researchers to the staff, led to the creation of a Diabetes Center – which later evolved into the Diabetes Institute. Originally part of the Appalachian Rural Health Institute, the Diabetes Center was funded by an initial $500,000 federal appropriation in 2003. The purpose of the center was to address this major health problem in southeast Ohio and the Appalachian region with a two-pronged approach: helping diabetes sufferers live better lives by providing patient-care services to the citizens of region and offering hope for a better future through an intensive research program aimed at finding new treatments for this disease, which has a disproportionately large impact in Appalachia. 

Constrained by difficult economic times, multiple budget-cuts and dwindling state support, Dr. Brose's tenure necessarily emphasized pragmatism and problem-solving. His perceptive leadership and tight fiscal management enabled the college to thrive.

Dr. Brose also initiated discussions in November 2009 that eventually resulted in the college’s obtaining a $105 million grant from the Osteopathic Heritage Foundation. This gift set a record at the time as the largest ever made to an institution of higher education in Ohio, and launched a process of expanding and transforming the college that continues today. Shortly after it was announced, the university trustees approved adding “Heritage” to the medical college’s name to commemorate the gift.

About a year after the gift was announced in April 2011, the college named a new executive dean in Kenneth H. Johnson, D.O., who succeeded Brose in July 2012.  During his time in office, Johnson has overseen a whirlwind of change in the college.

This transformation includes two new campuses in two of Ohio’s major urban areas, which were opened in the space of two years, and have boosted the size of the college’s incoming class by about 70 percent.

In November 2011, the Ohio University Trustees agreed to buy a former industrial park in the Columbus suburb of Dublin, Ohio, to be converted into the medical school’s first new campus since its founding in 1975, and the university’s first new campus since 1957. In April 2012, regional health care giant OhioHealth announced it would serve as the college’s pre-eminent education partner in the new campus, which welcomed its first class of 50 students in July 2014. All but two of them were from Ohio.

Two months after OhioHealth announced its involvement in the Dublin project, the prestigious Cleveland Clinic confirmed in June 2012 that it would partner with the medical college to open a third campus, within its South Pointe Hospital campus in Warrensville Heights. The first class of 51 students at the Heritage College, Cleveland, started classes in July 2015, a year after Dublin’s first class.

As the college moves forward under Johnson’s leadership, it faces both challenges and opportunities at a time when health care is changing dramatically, and Heritage College has committed itself to leading a nationwide transformation in how primary care is delivered. This process includes an overhaul of the college’s primary care curriculum, now in the drawing-board stage. The college has also joined in a consortium of three osteopathic medical colleges in central Appalachia, aimed at better tailoring medical education to the region’s health care needs. And the Heritage College is refocusing its research strategy to include more study in primary care.

The college is making 2015-16 a celebration of its 40 th birthday, and a time to both reaffirm its proud traditions, and look to its promising future.