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Peck, Washington Freeman
(January 22, 1840–December 12, 1891)

–surgeon, medical educator, and hospital director—was the principal agent behind the establishment of the State University of Iowa Medical Department (SUIMD) in Iowa City, the institutional forebear of the University of Iowa College of Medicine.

    Washington Peck was born in Galen, New York, and took his medical training at New York's Bellevue Medical College. He graduated in 1863 and became the house surgeon at Bellevue Hospital. After 18 months as an army surgeon at the Lincoln Hospital in Washington, D.C., Peck moved to Davenport, Iowa, in 1864.

    Peck quickly established a prosperous practice, was named the head surgeon for the Rock Island Railroad, and joined the Scott County Medical Society. With that status, Peck labored to improve public health in Davenport. In 1865 he secured compulsory smallpox vaccinations in the city, and he was able to insist on a sewer system and closure of surface wells and cesspools during the 1873 cholera epidemic.

    In 1868 Peck allied with eastern Iowa legislators to situate the SUIMD in Iowa City. Peck proposed creating a six-mandepartment with professors of surgery, theory and practice of medicine, obstetrics, anatomy, chemistry, and materia medica (pharmacology). Knowing that the Iowa legislature would not pay salaries, Peck suggested that the medical faculty be paid from student fees. In the spring of 1870 the State University of Iowa regents approved the SUIMD, and the General Assembly provided $1,900 to renovate South Hall for medical instruction.

    In the fall of 1870 Peck and five physician friends, all younger than 40 years old, opened the SUIMD for business. Thirty-seven students, including eight women, formed the first class. Iowa was the first medical school west of the Mississippi to admit women on equal footing with men. For Peck, this was a pragmatic move. As the faculty was part-time and paid via student fees, an open admission policy made fiscal sense. The curriculum consisted of five daily lectures and four weekly clinical demonstrations from October to April, with the same sequence repeated for the second year–a typical mid-19th-century medical education.

    Realizing the shortcomings of clinical demonstrations in South Hall, Peck worked to create a hospital in which to teach. He raised $4,000 from Iowa City businessmen and $1,500 from the regents in order to convert the Mechanics Academy, an erstwhile classroom building, into a 20-bed hospital complete with a surgical theater and outpatient dispensary. Peck then persuaded Davenport's Sisters of Mercy to provide nuns "specially educated in the treatment of the sick" to serve as nurses. By 1873 the conversion of the Mechanics Academy was complete, and Peck and his medical faculty had created Iowa's first teaching hospital.

    With the establishment of the hospital, enrollment increased rapidly, reaching 100 in 1875 and averaging 130 students for the next 15 years. During that time, Peck served as professor of surgery and dean of the SUIMD. He also lobbied the Iowa legislature for more resources, securing modest faculty salaries and funds for hospital improvements. He doubled the number of faculty and added a third year to the curriculum, keeping the SUIMD apace with developments in medical education.

    In addition to his work at the SUIMD, Peck found time to write articles for national medical journals, maintain his practice in Davenport, and serve as president of the Iowa State Medical Society in 1875-1876. His peers held him in high esteem. One wrote that Peck possessed "the faculty of inspiring absolute confidence in his patients" by weighing options of each case and then operating with "fearless skill unmatched by other surgeons."

    Peck's commitment to the SUIMD was ruthless. In 1871 a grave-robbing scandal threatened to close the medical department. Peck quickly fired the anatomy instructor, his friend James Boucher, in order to preserve the SUIMD. The Sisters of Mercy established a separate Mercy Hospital in 1886, hoping to carve out a sphere of autonomy for their nurses. Peck regained the upper hand by threatening to forbid medical faculty from practicing at the new hospital, restoring a shaky equilibrium. In 1888 Gustavus Hinrichs, professor of chemistry in the SUIMD, brought charges of corruption and incompetence against Peck. The ensuing special joint legislative investigation cleared Peck, confirming his importance to the university.

    Peck died in Davenport in 1891 at age 51, having created a medical college and teaching hospital that formed the foundation of the University of Iowa's academic medical center. When the first University Hospital built with state funds opened in 1898, the regents named the surgical ward for Washington Freeman Peck, a fitting tribute to the man whose persistence made the hospital possible.
Sources include Walter Lawrence Bierring, "History of the State University of Iowa Medical Department: The First Dean and First Medical Faculty," Journal of the Iowa State Medical Society 34 (1944), 178–80; Clyde Boice, "Hospitals in Iowa," in One Hundred Years of Iowa Medicine (1950); Samuel Levey et al., The Rise of the University Teaching Hospital: A Leadership Perspective on the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (1996); John McCormick, "Medical Education in Iowa," in One Hundred Years of Iowa Medicine (1950); William Middleton, "Medical Department at Iowa State University," in Medicine in Iowa from Its Early Settlement to 1876 (1912); and Charles Preston, "Washington Freeman Peck," in Harry E. Downer, History of Scott County (1910).
Contributor: Matthew Schaefer