The College’s Medical Education Building begins to take shape on the Milwaukee County Grounds in the late 1970s.
Alumni reflect on Medical College’s relocation 30 years after school leaves downtown campus
Classes represented in this story:
’39, ’75, ’81, ’82
College has taken great strides since moving to medical center campus
Looking today at the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, which includes the Medical College of Wisconsin, it might be difficult to imagine the 160-acre farm that once occupied the space. The change in landscape is extraordinary even in the last three decades. This fall, in fact, marks the 30-year anniversary of the Medical College’s relocation from downtown Milwaukee to the current campus.
In 1978, the College opened its Medical Education Building near Watertown Plank Road and 87th Street. It was nearly three times the size of the College’s previous downtown academic building. The Medical Education Building still exists, though it has received additions and expansions, including the Health Research Center, which now serves as the front entrance to the school.
The school’s place at the hub of the emerging medical center was an essential part of a master plan to synergize health care for the region’s residents. At its heart, a modern medical center ties hospitals and medical school into one teaching complex. Nearly 10 years into the new millennium, the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center comprises a vast assembly of resources organized within collaborative institutions that carry out diverse missions related to patient care, biomedical research, medical and scientific education, and public and community health.
In addition to the Medical College of Wisconsin, the current campus includes Froedtert Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, BloodCenter of Wisconsin, Curative Care Network and Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division. Just to the west, the Milwaukee County Research Park brings together organizations focused on health care and biotechnology.
The years have been marked by tremendous progress and partnership of the public and private campus members and Milwaukee County, a major catalyst in the College’s move. For years, the county provided program support and a hospital in which our faculty could practice and teach. The great relationship continues through Milwaukee County’s ownership and oversight of the Medical Center and Research Park grounds.
A major sign of growth is the size of the student body at the Medical College. Before the College moved to the Medical Center, it enrolled about 500 medical students and 100 graduate students. Today, there are 820 medical students and more than 440 graduate students enrolled at the College. The number of alumni of the College has grown accordingly. Before the relocation, there were about 4,000 living alumni. That number is now almost 14,000.
Faculty members who not only teach but also provide clinical care and conduct research have been essential to the College’s rise, and the faculty’s expansion has been significant. Soon after the College’s move, its full-time faculty consisted of about 500 members. Today, there are more than 1,300 physicians and scientists on the full-time faculty.
With a high-quality faculty, the College has been able to elevate its national reputation as an academic medical center, and cultivate its research enterprise far beyond its modest beginnings. External research and training grants to the Medical College, primarily from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), totaled $13.7 million in 1978, the year the College opened its new doors. Last year, the Medical College garnered about $130 million in external support for research.
In 1976, as construction was underway for the Medical Education Building and the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center was just beginning to come to fruition, David Carley, PhD, then President of the Medical College, wrote, “In this historic year, it seems most apt to recall our heritage and look to the future with a renewed sense of vigor and purpose, which is to train physicians and contribute to quality health care in southeastern Wisconsin in particular and the nation as a whole.” The same could be said today.
Workers refine the exterior of the Medical College’s Medical Education Building in August 1977.
Outdoor dining was probably not on the list of major amenities when the Medical College of Wisconsin’s new home was being built on the Milwaukee County Grounds in 1978, but the ad hoc eating environs are among the things that the first students to attend classes on the campus remember best.
“When we first started school, construction was either not completed, or not all of the building was open for use, and they actually had big tents set up outside, and that was where food was available and lunch was served,” said John T. Kroner, MD ’82, GME ’87. Dr. Kroner, now an orthopaedic surgeon practicing in the Milwaukee area, was an M1 during the Medical College’s first year in the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center.
Previously, the College and its predecessor institutions, including Marquette University School of Medicine, had been situated in downtown Milwaukee. Its relocation, 30 years ago this fall, to west suburban Milwaukee near the City of Wauwatosa, was a priority for school and public officials for a variety of reasons, but one of the major outcomes was the opportunity to build a modern medical school to meet increasing enrollment and advancing technology. At 427,000 square feet, the new Medical Education Building was nearly three times the size of the Cramer Building, which formerly housed medical school activities on 15th Street downtown.
“Almost uniformly, our class and those that followed were enthralled with the new surrounds,” said Alfred D. Oppenheim, MD ’81, an internist in Corte Madera, Calif. His Class of 1981 had the unique experience of being first-year medical students on the old campus and second-year students at the new facility, giving them the perfect basis for comparison. “Modern as opposed to the old Cramer Building, clean, better chairs (far more comfortable), and better viewing for lectures – the new medical school was fantastic in nearly every way.”
Patricia A. Barwig, MD ’81, GME ’85, was an undergraduate at Marquette University, so the old medical school campus was already familiar to her. Despite its age, there remained a certain charm to the Cramer Building that students enjoyed, and like most landmarks, it wore its history like a badge.
“One of the things that I loved about the old school was that the pipes in the stairwells were all graffiti-labeled with anatomic labels that were surprisingly close to anatomically correct,” said Dr. Barwig, an obstetrician/gynecologist in Brookfield, Wis. “Sewer pipes were given GI names, etc. The other endearing thing about the old school was that all administrative functions were contained in two offices, and most of the building was given over to education and research.”
Not mourned by students in the College’s move from downtown were the parking (a “nightmare” according to Dr. Barwig, who opted to take the bus from home to classes) and the lack of selection for quality leisure activities.
“There was never much to being on the Marquette campus except for the great intramural gym across the street, which was particularly great in that this was the year following the great Al Maguire-led NCAA victory,” Dr. Oppenheim said. “The downtown area in those days left a lot to be desired, and as such, a move west was welcomed.”
For Tamara S. Hagen, MD ’81, who now practices cardiovascular medicine in Madison, Wis., the relocation was a welcome change and came with one especially gender-friendly addition.
“I was excited about the move,” she said. “I lived out near the county location, and it had a very neighborhood feel. The new building was very compact and yet spacious compared to the old school. Plus there were more women’s bathrooms!”
The faculty and staff of the Medical College were also affected by the task of relocating, of course, though the transition proceeded smoothly. Julian Lombard, PhD ’75, Professor of Physiology, had recently completed his graduate degree at the College and was a junior faculty scientist when the change occurred.
“The actual process of moving the lab,” was the greatest challenge, he said. However, “since I just started on the faculty, the lab was very small, so there was really not that much of a challenge.”
Benefits of the new facility seemed to outweigh any concessions, and even those were only temporary. The Medical Education Building was replete with advantages, but as with the cafeteria (which mercifully opened before winter came to Wisconsin) there were parts of the school not initially ready for occupation.
Medical College of Wisconsin Medical Education Building just after its completion.
Alumni like Drs. Barwig and Hagen remember the first few weeks of M2 lectures taking place inside Milwaukee County Hospital’s auditorium, and the long walks between the hospital and school. When the building did become available, students noted the spacious labs and comfortable lecture hall, “a danger to sleep-deprived students, but still appreciated,” Dr. Barwig said. The library was a dramatic improvement as well, since there wasn’t one to speak of at the Marquette campus, Dr. Oppenheim said.
While most of their learning took place in the multipurpose classrooms, new large lecture halls and state of the art learning resource center, most students have the fondest memories of the commons area, where many would gather to unwind or for some friendly competition. Dr. Barwig is credited for teaching many of her classmates the ins and outs of bridge, while others partook in sheepshead with occasional competition from none other than the late Walter Zeit, PhD ’39, Professor of Anatomy. A foosball table was also a very popular recreational amenity added to the commons and the unlikely setting for some memorable family moments for Dr. Barwig.
“I was married with two daughters of school age, and one of my fondest memories of the new school was that I felt safe taking my kids there when our vacation schedules didn’t mesh,” she said. “Tony Bonfiglio, MD ’81, GME ’85, and Jeff Simon, MD ’81, told my girls, they were the ‘Foos Brothers’ and would play foosball with the girls and let them win. The girls were in prepubescent heaven with the attention of two handsome, funny ‘boys.’”
As more students took advantage of the opportunity to live outside the city and closer to the campus, they found a number of other reasons to laud the move.
“Being close to the Village of Wauwatosa offered several great burger places, not to mention beer availability,” Dr. Oppenheim said. “I also recall vividly being able to cross country ski one or two days when it really snowed hard and driving was not exactly easy.”
The immediate impact of the decision to relocate the Medical College was favorable, but the long-term benefits were what really drove the decision. College leaders, along with those from Milwaukee County and other institutions that made a new home at the medical center, had the foresight to predict what is taking place now – a booming enterprise in health care and biomedical research with the school at the center.
“Initially, moving into a much more pleasant environment, away from the downtown traffic, parking problems and urban landscape was the biggest benefit,” Dr. Lombard said. “The subsequent expansion of the Medical College of Wisconsin eventually provided many more scientific opportunities, but that was to come later.”
When students from those first classes view the campus today, they see just a hint of what existed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Not all of the differences are favored (Dr. Barwig would prefer to not have to sign in with a uniformed guard), but the overall product has forever changed the landscape of health care in southeastern Wisconsin. The dramatic changes on campus have not been cosmetic; they represent the College’s growth in stature and capability of improving the lives of people in Wisconsin and far beyond.
“It’s truly a first-class medical complex,” Dr. Hagen said. “I miss the old county building, but there is no denying that the new facilities were needed. I feel the Medical College is well recognized for its research along with its production of first class clinicians. I’m proud to say I trained there.”