UCSD School of Medicine: Novice to powerhouse in 40 years


By Dave Schwab

Staff Writer

UCSD School of Medicine’s rise to the top wasn’t as surprising to school founder Dan Steinberg as the rapidity with which that happened.

“The most startling thing about the school is it’s only 40 years old, yet it’s in the same league as the Ivy colleges in the East,” said Steinberg, professor emeritus of medicine at UCSD whose early studies linked blood fats and atherosclerosis. “It was just phenomenal the rate at which we acquired top-quality faculty and became a heavy hitter in research.”

From those modest beginnings with a class of 44 students who started in Fall 1968, small faculty and limited facilities, the medical school’s population has grown to 550 students today, including 70 doctors and Ph.Ds, as well as more than 900 medical faculty who rank second nationally in attracting federal research dollars.

The med school’s “umbrella” now covers clinical training at Hillcrest and Thornton hospitals, the VA Hospital, pediatric residency at Rady Children’s Hospital, Moores UCSD Cancer Center and the Shiley Eye Center. And more is on the horizon, with the newest project being a 128,000-square-foot expansion that will become the region’s first dedicated cardiovascular center.

Scientific inquiry has made UCSD a leader in improving health care and researching stem cells, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, HIV/AIDS, heart disease and stroke, burn treatment and aging.

Robert Hamburger, professor of pediatrics emeritus - a key figure in creating UCSD Med School and its first full-time faculty member - credits university founders Roger Revelle and David Bonner, founding chair of the Biology Department, with being the impetus behind the school’s and the university’s rapid rise.

It was Bonner, he added, who helped meld the med school in with the general campus.

Incorporating science

“The med school carved out the mandate that was set up in the earlier years by Revelle and Bonner and a small group of other outstanding people who came here from various parts of the country to build great science, incorporating the science into the practice of clinical medicine,” Hamburger said.

“We did it, put ourselves on the map within two years, five years in terms of the faculty and their economics and grants.”

Harold J. Simon, a founding member of the UCSD School of Medicine faculty and a leader in international health and health policy, agreed the med school’s rise was meteoric.

“We got a start that was like a vertical trajectory - such a start that hasn’t been seen before or since,” he said.

Simon pointed out the med school, in only its second year, was already first in the nation in national board exams. It’s also always been innovative, he added.

“We eliminated traditional department barriers which brought scientific thinking in several disciplines to bear on single problems,” he said. “The university and med school was largely responsible for the development and growth of the biomedical/industrial development here (Torrey Pines Mesa), and is one of the top few universities in the United States and the world, both in terms of numbers and productivity.”

Biotech anchor

Howard C. Birndorf, chairman, CEO and founder of Nanogen, Inc. credits UCSD School of Medicine with being instrumental in the development of San Diego’s biotech community.

He should know. He and former UCSD professor Ivor Royston, who is now a venture capitalist, founded Hybritech, a monoclonal antibody company that some have called the root of San Diego’s biotech family tree.

“It was a major factor in the ability to attract that nucleus that formed the infrastructure at Salk and Scripps,” he said. “It built the intellectual base that exists today, which allowed UCSD to become one of the strongest research-funded universities in the country. It was really the underpinning of the biotech industry and played a pivotal role in bringing together the people and technical development that is up on Torrey Pines Mesa.”

Tim Ingersoll, communications director at Biocom, an industry organization, said the med school’s significance to the biotech community cannot be underestimated,

“UCSD is basically an anchor, it’s the heart of what’s going on in the Torrey Pines region,” he said. “It is what generates the innovation we see in the life science community. A lot of researchers come out of there with ideas and start companies.”

Evolution continues

Watching the school evolve has been like watching a child grow, noted Doris Howell, UCSD professor of pediatrics and former chair of the Department of Community and Family Medicine.

“For 35 years I’ve been watching it change from a very young, immature struggling school trying to establish research and build a stronger program, to find those good people and reach success, in not only being nationally recognized, but in being one of the top schools,” she said.

Nobel Laureates

Of UC San Diego’s 16 Nobel Laureates, six are from the university’s physiology or medicine departments: Sydney Brenner, 2002; Francis H.C. Crick, 1962; Renato Dulbecco, 1975; Roger Guillemin, 1977; Robert W. Holley, 1968, and George E. Palade, 1974.

Some of the other 10, like 2008 winner Roger Tsien, spent part of their time working with the medical school.