The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Bierring, Walter Lawrence
(July 15, 1868–June 24, 1961)

–medical educator, public health advocate, and Iowa's foremost bacteriologist in the 20th century—was born in Davenport, Iowa, home to Washington Peck, dean of the State University of Iowa Medical Department (UIMD), where Bierring chose to pursue his medical education. Upon completing his M.D. at Iowa in 1892, Bierring traveled to Europe for postgraduate work in bacteriology. Between 1892 and 1894, he studied at Heidelberg, the University of Vienna, and the Pasteur Institute, where he learned the most advanced techniques and the germ theory.

    The UIMD hired Bierring in 1894 as the first chair of its pathology and bacteriology department. In 1895 he developed an antidiphtheria serum, the first such serum developed west of New York City. After testing it on himself, Bierring used it to treat successfully more than 300 cases of diphtheria over the next five years. He continued to press for improved understanding of bacteriology in Iowa. He also lobbied for the creation of a state-funded laboratory, fully equipped to study, identify, and treat bacteria-caused diseases. His efforts were rewarded in 1904 with the establishment of the Bacteriological Laboratory in Iowa City, known today as the University Hygienic Laboratory.

    In 1903 Bierring was named chair of the Department of Internal Medicine, and he was still chair when Abraham Flexner reviewed the State University of Iowa's College of Medicine in 1909. Flexner recommended that the college focus on instruction in basic sciences and abandon clinical instruction since the number of patients was too few and the hospital too small to provide for first-class medical education. Bierring defended the college, arguing that students saw more than 10 clinical cases per week in the hospital and additional cases in his recently opened outpatient dispensary.

    However, Bierring was unable to deal with a more pressing problem raised by Flexner, the question of physicians using hospital facilities to treat private patients. Flexner saw this as unethical and urged that faculty be paid entirely by the college. Bierring saw this as unreasonable and resigned his chair in April 1910 rather than abandon his private practice, thus severing his two-decade relationship with the State University of Iowa.

    Bierring went on to enjoy a long and distinguished career. In 1914 he became the president of the Iowa State Board of Health and head of the state's medical examiners and held those posts until 1925. He was then named to the board of regents of the American College of Physicians, served as president of the National Board of Medical Examiners from 1927 to 1930, was president of the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1934, and was named diplomate on the American Board of Internal Medicine. In those positions, Bierring worked to improve medical curricula, set educational standards for residencies, and introduce rigor into continuing medical education programs.

    In 1933 Bierring moved to Des Moines to serve as State Commissioner of Public Health, a post he held until retiring in 1953. In that position Bierring had his most enduring impact on Iowa health care. After World War II, the Hill-Burton Hospital Construction Act provided federal funds to build hospitals in underserved areas of the country. In 1946 Bier-ring oversaw the Iowa Hospital Survey, which showed that many of Iowa's 145 hospitals were not up to federal standards. Bierring then drafted the Iowa Hospital Plan in 1947, effectively setting priorities for the distribution of Hill-Burton funds for Iowa hospital construction for the next decade. His plan and federal funds enabled Iowa to modernize its hospitals and improve its medical infrastructure.

    In addition to his contributions to public health and the medical profession, Bierring wrote on Iowa medical history, drawing on his own diverse experiences. Noteworthy were his brief histories of the departments of internal medicine and bacteriology at the State University of Iowa's College of Medicine and his chapters in One Hundred Years of Iowa Medicine, 1850-1950. Bierring died in Des Moines at age 92. To honor him, the University of Iowa's College of Medicine annually presents the Walter Bierring Award for the most significant contribution to microbiology.
Sources include Lee Anderson and Lewis January, "Walter Bierring and the Flexner Revolution at the University of Iowa College of Medicine," Pharos 55 (1992), 9–12; Walter Bierring, "The Story of Bacteriology at the University of Iowa," Journal of the Iowa State Medical Society 27 (1937), 555–57, 602–6, 656–59; Walter Bierring, The History of the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Iowa, 1870–1958 (1958); Walter Bierring, ed., One Hundred Years of Iowa Medicine, 1850–1950 (1951); Iowa Press Association, Who's Who in Iowa (1940); Samuel Levey et al., The Rise of the University Teaching Hospital: A Leadership Perspective on the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (1996); and Stow Persons, The University of Iowa in the Twentieth Century: An Institutional History (1990).
Contributor: Matthew Schaefer