New World Meets Old World

Today, we take for granted that religion and ethnic background should not impact on the ability of qualified individuals to teach at a medical school. However, the world was different when Guilhem VIII, the Lord of the French city of Montpellier, implemented an edict stating as much. His edict led to the opening of a new and unique college of medicine–in the year 1220.

I am writing this blog from Montpellier and learned this fascinating piece of history while visiting the Montpellier Faculté de Médecine, which is the oldest surviving medical school in the western world. I am here because I was asked by French colleagues to serve on a scientific advisory board and give a talk at a university conference.

The school is justifiably proud of the progressive attitude of its founder almost 800 years ago, and of a number of alumni and professors who were pioneers in medicine.

One who is known to many American physicians, even those not steeped in the history of medicine, is François de la Peyronie, who lived from 1678-1747.

Peyronie served in multiple roles, including as the physician to Louis XV. He is admired in Montpellier for making major changes in medical education and in working to prevent barbers from practicing surgery. The reason primary reason we know him in the United States is that he was the first to describe the anatomy responsible for Peyronie’s disease, a favorite disease eponym for generations of medical students. (Readers who are not physicians can Google it.)

The Montpellier Faculté de Médecine is located in what was once a medieval monastery and palace. The conference was held in a theater within that structure that was built specifically by Peyronie for dissection of cadavers so students could observe anatomy “in the flesh,” an idea that was radical at the time. The room is still used for medical student lectures and conferences. Thankfully, the cadavers have been moved to more modern facilities.

The connection between the past and the future is everywhere in Montpellier.

  • Peyronie’s stone chair–more like a throne–is installed behind the podium in the lecture hall/theater. One can just imagine students being enthralled by what they were seeing and what Peyronie was describing.
  • The computer I used to present my Powerpoint slides sat on the marble dissection table used by Peyronie. While this may sound, quite literally, morbid, it was inspiring to think about the learning over many centuries that had taken place at that very spot.

My French hosts are justifiably proud of the history of their school but don’t dwell on looking backward. They continue to make major contributions, such as in the field of cancer immunotherapy that was the focus of the meeting and conference.

As with most conferences, among the most valuable time was spent networking. It goes without saying that these networking sessions were effectively facilitated by French contributions to other aspects of western civilization.

Makes me wonder what will be written about the educational and scientific contributions of the Carver College of Medicine and Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center in… say… 650 years. On the other hand, it is safe to say that networking sessions of the future in Iowa will not involve such Iowa delicacies as fried Twinkies on a stick.

George Weiner, MD
Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center Director