Many students of Williams history are probably aware that Mark Hopkins had more than one doctorate, including a degree in medicine. But I suspect that fewer realize that the source of his medical degree was the institution so central to his entire life — Williams itself. Yes, during a brief period that included the era of Hopkins’ studies, you could be more than a Williams pre-med — you could be a Williams med.

The story of the medical school connected to Williams begins in the dark year of 1821, but not with Zephaniah Moore or Edward Dorr Griffin. Although not as isolated from all of civilization as their neighbors to the north in Williamstown, Pittsfield was struggling with its remoteness as well. Led by Dr. Henry Halsey Childs, Williams class of 1802, a group of Pittsfield leaders prepared a bold proposal: to petition the legislature for a charter and an endowment with which to found New England’s eighth medical school — at Pittsfield.

With the backing of the newly-created Berkshire Medical Society, Dr. Childs enlisted two other early Ephs in the cause: Lanesboro’s illustrious Dr. Asa Burbank of Lanesboro, class of 1797, and Dr. Daniel Collins of Lenox (class of 1800). Dr. Burbank is best known as the first president of the Society of Alumni after its founding in 1821, and as one of the first Williams tutors, during the two years after his graduation. Although less famous in his own right, Dr. Collins was the son of the Rev. Daniel Collins, one of the twelve original trustees of the College, and a prominent doctor in the Berkshires for over half of the 19th century.

In the summer of 1822, Dr. Childs presented the petition in person to the Massachusetts legislature. Opposition from the anti-Berkshire forces in the legislature and from the Harvard crowd ensured that the debate was far from pro forma. The Pittsfield petition succeeded — in part. The legislature granted a charter to the new medical college, and an “Act to Incorporate the Berkshire Medical Institution” became law under the signature of Governor John Brooks on January 24, 1823.

The medical college promoters didn’t get everything they sought, however. There was no endowment — that would be left to the people of Pittsfield and Berkshire County, although the legislature did make a small appropriation of $5,000 in 1823, to be paid out over five long years. And the Berkhire Medical Institution was not granted full independence as an institution of higher learning: in a clause that would prove troublesome, the Legislature ordered that “all medical degrees, conferred upon the students in said institution, shall be conferred by the president and trustees of Williams College, under the same rules and restrictions, as are adopted and recognized, in conferring degrees of the same nature, by the University at Cambridge.”

Like Harvard, Williams would soon be minting M.D.s.

Where did the association with Williams come from? It wasn’t a part of the original petition. It seems to parallel the relationship of the then-Massachusetts Medical College to Harvard University at the time, perhaps to address concerns about the growth of “too many” degree-granting institutions. (A parallel to today’s “war on for-profit education,” perhaps). Some sources suggest that an association with an existing college or university was needed to ensure there would be “confidence” in the value of the new degrees. The first report of the trustees of the new institution stated that the arrangement was adopted “by agreement,” and it certainly seems likely that Drs. Childs, Burbank, and Collins, in light of their association with Williams, might have offered up the arrangement to assuage concerns and ensure passage of the chartering legislation.

The first class began its studies in Pittsfield on September 11, 1823, under a faculty that included both Dr. Childs and Dr. Burbank. And the Williams connections with the early institution stretched beyond the two doctors and the formal oversight role for the College. Williams Professor Chester Dewey taught botany and mineralogy, and his lectures were open to the public and required separate payment. The trustees of Berkshire also included Henry Hubbard – a nongraduating member of the class of 1803; Samuel M. McKay, son of the early Williams professor Samuel McKay, also a founding trustee (and recipient of an honorary Williams degree in 1823); and Daniel Noble, one of the seniors in the class of 1821 who had stood strong and refused to support moving the college to Amherst.

The 81 students in the first class paid $50 for tuition and $40 for lectures, but those becoming missionaries received a break on these charges. Students also paid $1.75 per week for room and board and a $12 fee for graduation. Seven students graduated in the first year — their degrees conferred by Edward Dorr Griffin and the Trustees of Williams College at Commencement.

To be continued.

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