Forty years after starting medical school with our first entering class, alumnus Ronald C. Moomaw, D.O. (’80), brought it all back home May 7 as commencement speaker for the Heritage College class of 2016. Moomaw, a psychiatrist and flight surgeon who works with NASA astronauts, reminisced about the high adventure of launching a new medical college in converted dormitory buildings and lauded the school for giving him “the chance to have the most fascinating life I could possibly imagine.” He was one of 24 medical students who began their studies here in 1976. With 129 new physicians, the class of 2016 is the largest graduating class in the college’s history.
“It’s because of the way the medical school was founded – different from any osteopathic medical school before it. It changed the standing of osteopathic medicine, and that happened at Ohio University. Period.”
– Thomas Wagner, Ph.D., retired distinguished professor of molecular and cellular biology
Apparently, research really has been in our DNA from the start.
It was in 1980 – just four years after the college opened its doors – that a team led by Thomas E. Wagner, Ph.D., then a chemistry professor on our clinical and basic science faculty, developed DNA microinjection. In this process, an important addition to the genetic engineer’s toolbox, scientists take a gene for a particular trait from one animal and inject it into the embryo of another animal shortly after it’s fertilized. The new gene enters the DNA of the recipient, which can then pass the trait along to its offspring.
This discovery – and Wagner’s use of the process to create the world’s first transgenic mammal by transferring a rabbit gene into a mouse – revolutionized biomedical research, making national news at a time when gene-splicing was still in its infancy. A major collaborator in that research was microbiologist Joseph D. Jollick, Ph.D., who like Wagner was an original member of the college’s science faculty. The patented process of DNA microinjection, developed right here, remains a widely used, powerful tool in genetic medical research.
Wagner, who in 1983 co-founded biotech firm Diagnostic Hybrids Inc. and is now a retired distinguished professor of molecular and cellular biology, is still finding ways to use molecular biology to treat disease. In 2013 he founded Perseus PCI (Personalized Cancer Immuno-therapeutics), a clinic that treats cancer with vaccines made from patients’ own tumor cells.
At a time when the college is developing a comprehensive research strategy to reaffirm its commitment to focused scientific study, it’s worth remembering that our researchers have engaged in world-class work almost from day one. Recalling the earliest days of the college, Wagner stresses that a commitment to hiring top-notch basic science faculty was a hallmark from the start. In turn, he says, the high value placed on research raised the prestige of the college, and ultimately, the entire osteopathic profession.
“It’s because of the way the medical school was founded – different from any osteopathic medical school before it,” Wagner said recently. “It changed the standing of osteopathic medicine, and that happened at Ohio University. Period.”
Embracing diversity and serving the underserved are bedrock values for both our college and the osteopathic profession. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that we made history in August 1993, when our university and college chose an African American woman to be our dean.
When we announced that our new physician leader was Barbara Ross Lee, D.O., sister of Motown superstar Diana Ross, it marked a step forward for diversity in medical education. And Dr. Ross-Lee clearly understood that bringing more minorities into health care can mean better care for underserved populations. She also stressed the important role that osteopathic medicine can play in making that happen.
Speaking to Black Issues in Higher Educationabout her new job, Dr. Ross-Lee said osteopathic medicine offers great opportunities for minority physicians to improve care delivery to populations “we are most concerned about.” And as she has throughout her career, she spoke frankly about racial disparities in health care, calling them “a scandal of such long standing that it has lost the power to shock.”
Predictably, the national press had some fun with the fact that the new dean was sibling to a pop music icon. “Diana Ross’s big sister hit No. 1 on the charts this month,” deadpanned Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. “Not the record charts. The medical charts.”
African American media, though, cheered the appointment as a landmark. Dr. Ross-Lee herself hinted it was about time, telling Jet magazinethat initially, she hadn’t realized her appointment was a historic first. “I probably, like the rest of the country, was a little surprised,” she admitted, adding that she hoped “this breaking of a barrier will just turn into a tide and we’ll see a lot more black females achieving in medical academics.”
Dr. Ross-Lee’s seven years at the helm were important for more than barrier-busting. Dean emeritus Jack Brose, D.O., who served from 2001-2012 and is now vice provost for health affairs, praises Ross-Lee for her bold innovation and “terrific leadership skills. I know I certainly learned a lot from her.”
Creative leadership was indeed, as Dr. Brose suggests, a hallmark of her tenure. Under her direction the college developed the nation’s first osteopathic post-doctoral training institute; its Centers for Osteopathic Research and Education; its two curricular options; an independent Department of Biomedical Sciences; and a Center of Excellence for Multicultural Medicine.
In 2001 Dr. Ross-Lee left our college to go to the New York Institute of Technology, where she currently servesas vice president for health sciences and medical affairs, and site dean for the Jonesboro, Ark., campus of NYIT’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Since moving on, she has continued to carry the standard for osteopathic medicine, health care diversity, and serving the underserved. In doing so, she has carried on a tradition as old as osteopathic medicine founder A.T. Still, who battled throughout his 19th century career against slavery and racism, and in favor of women’s rights.
Perhaps the symbolic breakthrough she achieved should have come earlier. We’re proud that it happened here.
Reminisce with any member of our first class and sooner or later you’re likely to hear about Sherman Brooks, who served as mentor, confidante, adviser and tutor to students from 1976, when the college opened, till his retirement in 1985. And he did it all while keeping the hallways clean.
“There was a janitor – he was the nicest guy,” remembers 1980 alum Stephanie Knapp, D.O., now a pediatrician and allergist in Pennsylvania. “He was from southern Ohio. He was very encouraging when we were studying at night. He was such a great guy, and I really remember him and how kind he was and how welcoming.”
Knapp is just one of the many alums who still remember Brooks, who died in 1987. A 1978 student yearbook featured an in-depth feature on him, reporting that the custodian “has gained a legacy of respect from the osteopathic students by not only being a physical plant employee, but also a ‘resident dean of humanity’ … What can you say about a janitor who can tell you how cadavers are preserved, explain the functions of the heart, know the birthdates of 59 students and root and cheer for them through every arduous step of their scholastic career?”
Brooks reportedly had a lifelong interest in medicine, and had asked Ohio University to transfer him to work in Grosvenor Hall when the new medical school opened. “He would quiz the kids, and they loved him,” recalls Chip Rogers, who first worked for the college as assistant and driver to first Dean Gerald Faverman, and later went on to become director of alumni relations and director of advocacy.
In 1990, a number of people who had been with the college from its earliest days got together to honor the man who had always remembered students’ birthdays and had a kindly word to offer when they needed one. Some 25 year later, the Sherman Brooks Memorial Scholarship is still helping first-year students from small southeastern Ohio towns who have expressed an interest in rural family practice.
Do you have a Sherman story? If so, please share below.
Chila has had contact with every Heritage College graduating class, and his passion for teaching osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM) has left many Heritage College alumni with a favorite Chila story. He joined the Heritage College faculty in 1978, and today is a professor emeritus of family medicine and faculty practitioner at University Medical Associates. A leading authority on OMM, he has served a variety of leadership roles in the American Academy of Osteopathy and in 2013 received the American Osteopathic Foundation’s Educator of the Year award.
Favorite class?: “I always had a great deal of favoritism for the Class of 1982. I enjoyed that group of people tremendously. I think they had as much fun with me, poking fun at me, as I had with them, harassing them. It was just a kind of a chemistry with that particular group. And that, by the way, was part of my learning process.”
Osteopathic medicine’s “secret sauce”:“The hands-on part is central to the whole idea of what an osteopathic physician is or is to be. Unfortunately, there is so much material thrown at students that it just boggles my mind that they can struggle with the hard-core academic material and still have some interest and some hope that they want to get something from the hands-on.”
His inspiration: “That ‘aha’ moment when you are working with your hands and you are trying to explain to a student or intern or a resident what it is you are looking for, how it is that you are preparing to make a diagnosis and what it is that you’re doing when you are implementing a treatment. There is something about that close work one-on-one with the student or resident over a patient and there seems to come a time when a huge light bulb goes on and a student literally says ‘aha, I understand what you’re talking about.’”
Parting thought:“Happy 40th anniversary, Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to be with you.”
Perspectives from those whose personal story is woven into the college’s beginning.