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The Birth of MIT Medical

A good idea and a determined doctor.

In the early days of the Cambridge campus, students who fell ill had only a first-aid room to turn to. But an enterprising Boston physician gazed across the river and saw the campus as an underserved patient base. And he seized the opportunity to lead MIT into a new era of medical care.

To wait or to lounge? In 1928, Technology Review pronounced the waiting room at Homberg Memorial Infirmary “as comfortably furnished as the lounge in many a men’s club.”

On July 31, 1920, Dr. George W. Morse submitted a three-page proposal detailing his vision of an MIT medical department with offices on campus, an initial budget of $8,520, and a lofty goal: “to give free consultation, treatment, and medical advice to all members of the student body, faculty, instructing staff, and employees of the Institute.”

Morse readily received approval from MIT’s executive committee, but with a budget reduced to $7,000 by lowering his salary. Still, it was enough to purchase surgical supplies, employ an assistant, and hire six additional doctors to help perform mandatory physical exams of freshmen.

With his project on the fast track, Morse wasted no time. He opened the clinic in September, and he and his staff soon began the inaugural round of freshman physicals, recording their observations of each student on index cards. Of the 623 freshmen examined, 138 received demerits in the form of red stars on their cards, indicating “defects” ranging from infected tonsils to flat feet.

Near the end of his first year, Morse requested an additional $25,000 to create a health insurance plan, reasoning that it would make students more willing to seek treatment. “The boys do not want charity,” he wrote. He suggested that any unused funds be put toward building an infirmary. But he got just $5,000 added to his budget.

Some of Morse’s medical views were ahead of their time. When he requested that protective glasses be required in chemical laboratories, for example, the Administrative Committee countered that such a policy “would seriously hamper the work.”

Undaunted, Morse nurtured his program and eventually developed an inexpensive solution for one common student defect: underweight. In 1924, his team established a nutrition course for physically unfit students, which led Technology Review to declare, “so far as is known Technology is the only institution of collegiate grade in the world in which this sort of clinic is operated.”

After the nutrition program’s fourth year, Morse wrote MIT president Samuel Wesley Stratton, boasting of 40 men who for five months maintained diet records and reported to the clinic weekly. By the end, 34 posted an average increase of about five pounds; only six remained underweight. Morse enclosed graphs of the students’ weight fluctuations. One chart displayed a brief 2.5-pound decrease attributed to “extra work to earn money”; another, a three-pound dip owing to “fatigue and loss of sleep.” But one line went smoothly upward, with Morse’s triumphant caption “IDEAL STEADY GAIN.”

With his clinic well established, Morse set his sights on building a campus ­infirmary. To jump-start the process, he looked outside MIT for funding. The family of a student who had died of pneumonia in his senior year agreed that the Institute would bene­fit from better medical facilities on campus. With $100,000 from the family (and $50,000 from MIT), the Richard M. ­Homberg Memorial Infirmary opened in June 1928. Students got physicals on the first floor; for more serious conditions, they proceeded to the third-floor hospital and operating room. Recuperating patients could relax in the fourth-floor ­solarium. The infirmary served more than 5,000 patients in its first six months; in 2006-‘07, MIT Medical served nearly 135,000 patients in Building E23 and at Lincoln Lab.

In the summer of 1929, the annual Presi­dent’s Report publicly validated Morse’s efforts: “The year has been one of most notable progress in the care of the students’ health. Upon the completion and opening of the Homberg Memorial Infirmary … it [has become] possible for Technology to assume a position of leadership in this field amongst the colleges throughout the country.”

It took just nine years of convincing.

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