A Tradition of Science

MGH at sunset
Massachusetts General Hospital is in the West End of Boston near Beacon Hill and on the Charles River.

In 2011, Massachusetts General Hospital will celebrate the 200th anniversary of its founding and association with Harvard Medical School as its first affiliated teaching and research hospital. The history of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Harvard Medical School (HMS) during the past 190 years has been one of continuous interaction-without basic medical research there would have been no new knowledge with which to improve the treatment of disease and care of patients. MGH, the first hospital established in New England, owes its recognition as one of the world's great medical centers in large part to its long-standing commitment to research in the basic sciences.

The history of basic research at MGH began on October 16, 1896, with the formal opening of the Pathology Laboratory, 50 years to the day after the first public demonstration of anesthesia in an MGH operating theatre, the now famous Ether Dome. The times called for a new kind of scientist-doctor, someone who combined the practice of medicine with a sound knowledge of science and an instinct for experimentation. The intimate MGH-HMS relationship produced these rare individuals and allowed them to flourish.

Notable achievements during the next 50 years were the first demonstration of the uses of X-rays in medical diagnosis, the discovery of the mechanisms of lead poisoning and how to treat it successfully, and experiments which eventually led to the discovery of an effective method for treatment of pernicious anemia. In 1951, a six-story building devoted exclusively to research was opened, and in 1953 Dr. Fritz Lipmann received the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his discovery of co-enzyme A and its significance in intermediary metabolism.

In 1957, biochemist Dr. Paul Zamecnik expressed the philosophy of MGH towards basic research as follows:

"In order to attract and keep basic scientists of high quality, positions of respect and independence would have to be created for them...Three types of professional personnel [are] essential to the future of the Hospital as a center for care of patients, teaching and research: the practitioner busy on the patient front and yet interested in adding to the sum total of knowledge in his special field; the research straddler, engaged in translating the findings of the laboratory into terms of improved human welfare with minimum loss of time; and the Ph.D. and non-clinical M.D. personnel immersed in laboratories but sympathetic to their surroundings.

In 1935, the MGH spent $50,000 on research. In 1960, the figure was $4,000,000, a fifth of the total operating budget. In 2000, the MGH research budget exceeded $300,000,000, with over 100 separate laboratories funded, and over 1,000,000 square feet of hospital space devoted exclusively to research."