Department History

The history of the Department of Surgery began in 1837 with the founding of the Saint Louis University School of Medicine and the naming of the pioneer physiologist and military surgeon, William Beaumont, as the first Professor of Surgery. The system existed in various forms under different titles with several periods of interruption until 1903 when the William Beaumont and the Marion Sims Schools of Medicine merged to form the Saint Louis University School of Medicine on Grand Boulevard in central St. Louis. Between World War I and World War II the Department of Surgery was very well defined with leadership of considerable local and national reputation.

In 1950 the Department of Surgery underwent a remarkable change. C. Rollins Hanlon, M.D., assumed the departmental leadership.  Dr. Hanlon brought open heart surgery to the area and established the full-time academic faculty characteristic of the Department of Surgery. He remained chairman until 1969.  He was subsequently succeeded by his pupil, resident and associate, Vallee L. Willman, M.D., who headed the Department of Surgery for the next 26 years. Dr. Willman, a cardiothoracic surgeon, guided the department to its current level of maturity and national visibility. 


Dr. Willman retired in 1995 as professor emeritus.  He was succeeded by Thomas A. Miller, M.D., a gastrointestinal surgeon, who previously served on the faculty of the University of Texas Medical School at Houston. Dr. Miller during the period 1996 to 1998. Gary J. Peterson, M.D., served as the acting chairman from 1998 to 1999. Robert G. Johnson, M.D., joined the Department of Surgery as the C. Rollins Hanlon Professor and Chairman of Surgery in October of 1999. Prior to assuming this position Dr. Johnson served as Chief of the Cardiothoracic Surgery Division at Beth Israel-Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, and as an Associate Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Johnson left Saint Louis University in February 2012. Donald L. Jacobs, M.D., Professor and the Program Director of the Vascular Surgery Training Program at Saint Louis University, was appointed Interim Chairman of the Department of Surgery on July 1, 2012. Effective June 1, 2013, Dr. Jacobs was appointed full-time Chairman of the Department of Surgery.  Gary J. Peterson, M.D., continues to serve as the Vice Chair of the Department. 


Saint Louis University is a private, Catholic, Jesuit University, sponsored and assisted by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), the Catholic religious order founded by Saint Ignatius Loyola in 1540. It is private by reason of its charter granted by the Missouri Legislature in 1832. It is "Catholic" in its philosophy and commitments in the Credo of Saint Louis University. It is not church-related in that it neither receives financial support from a church body nor is it under the jurisdictional control of a church body. It is similar to other private universities in that the ultimate governing responsibility is vested in an independent Board of Trustees. 


Saint Louis University traces its history back to the foundation of Saint Louis Academy in 1818, three years before Missouri became a state. Founded by the Right Reverend Louis DuBourg, Bishop of Louisiana and the Floridas, the Academy was renamed "Saint Louis College" in 1820.  In 1823 Belgian Jesuits from Maryland arrived in Missouri at the urgent invitation of Bishop DuBourg and the Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. They settled in Florissant, near St. Louis, where they organized an Indian school. Within a short time after this educational venture they assumed direction of Saint Louis College, which had been administered by members of the diocesan clergy during its first nine years. On December 28, 1832, Saint Louis College received its charter as "Saint Louis University" by an act of the Missouri Legislature. It was the first university charter west of the Mississippi River.


A medical department was established in 1842. Twenty-nine students were enrolled from six states and one foreign country. At that time there were only eight universities (Pennsylvania, Columbia, Harvard, Transylvania, Maryland, Willoughby, New York, Yale) and one college (Dartmouth) with functioning medical departments. Only two were west of the Alleghenies and none were west of the Mississippi.

Sensing increasing anti-Catholic and emigrant attitudes, the medical department was established with its own board of trustees representing the eight dominant religious persuasions in the city. "In order to free this department from all prejudice of a sectarian character, the Trustees shall be selected from various religious persuasions, as follows: A. L. Mills and Warwich Tunstall from the Presbyterian; James Lucas and J. G. Dinnies from the Catholic; Reverend W. G. Elliot and J. B. Crockett from the Unitarian; Doctor B. G. Farrar and C. P. Billon from the Episcopalian; Colonel John O'Fallon and J. H. Gay from the Methodist; S. C. Davis from the Baptist; George Collier from the Reformed Presbyterian." Nonetheless, by 1855, anti-Catholic attitudes fostered in large part by the Native American Party (Know-Nothing Party) erupted in violence at the medical school and it was dissociated from the University to protect the University from terrorist attack. That medical department at Saint Louis University was reconstituted as Saint Louis Medical College, sponsored by the medical society, and was taken over by Washington University as that university's school of medicine in 1891.

In 1903 Saint Louis University purchased the combined Marion Sims-Beaumont Medical Colleges and, along with the purchase of Mullanphy Hospital, opened the current medical school at its present site on Grand Boulevard. 


The discipline of Surgery has been prominent throughout the history of medical education at Saint Louis University.  William Beaumont, who had been mustered out of the army while at Jefferson Barracks, and who had established a practice in St. Louis, was among the original faculty members. James Vance Prather and Alexander Pope also headed Surgery in the original establishment. Both were very noteworthy "Western" physicians.


Following reestablishment of the medical school in 1903, until 1950, the Department of Surgery, as were all departments, was directed by "geographic full-time" surgeons. Prominent among these surgeons was William T. Coughlin, M.D., who held the position for twenty years (1920-1940). It was Dr. Coughlin who initiated a surgical residency program. He was a facile surgeon and a most dedicated physician. His  contributions to the medical literature were numerous and dealt with diverse topics. It was during his tenureship that student and resident instruction was extended to several affiliated Catholic hospitals and to the St. Louis City public institutions. His residents became fiercely loyal.

In 1935 Firmin Desloge Hospital (now Saint Louis University Hospital) was completed, providing a fine clinical laboratory on the University campus. This became Dr. Coughlin's home until he died of myocardial infarction in 1940. Dr. Coughlin never married and had no close relatives. He bequeathed his estate jointly to Saint Louis University and to the Sisters of St. Mary for the purpose of establishing a hospital for children. Cardinal Glennon Hospital for Children (now SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center), on the University campus, opened in 1956.


In 1950, in keeping with the national trend, Dr. C. Rollins Hanlon was recruited as the full-time chairman of the Department of Surgery, the first full-time clinical chairman at the University. Born in Baltimore, Dr. Hanlon received his baccalaureate degree from Loyola University and the Doctor of Medicine degree from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. His postgraduate studies in surgery at Johns Hopkins, the University of California, and Cincinnati General Hospital were interrupted during World War II by a period of service in the United States Navy, which included an assignment to Mainland China. Following military service he completed his residency at Johns Hopkins and joined the faculty in the Department of Surgery.

In 1949 he and Margaret M. Hammond, M.D., an alumna and staff physician in pediatric cardiology at Johns Hopkins, were married. Just prior to their arrival in St. Louis, the first of their eight children was born. Dr. Hanlon, having been closely associated with Dr. Blalock and the innovative cardiac operative procedures at Johns Hopkins, quickly established himself and Saint Louis University as a regional research and clinical center for the study and treatment of cardiac conditions. He was a very productive author, clinician and teacher. He established a teaching program in surgery that set an example throughout the University and won wide respect throughout the nation. Literate and articulate, the elegant surgeon and the complete physician, he had set and achieved goals in his professional, intellectual, and personal life that have been an inspiration to many young physicians.

In 1969 he was sought out for, and accepted, the directorship of the American College of Surgeons. He was elected president of that organization from 1986 to 1987 and, having been president of the American Surgical Association from 1981 to 1982, he is the sole individual to have held all these positions.  Dr. Hanlon passed away May 3, 2011.

During Dr. Hanlon's tenure as chair, the department steadily grew to a complement of thirty full-time faculty members, with residency programs in general, neuro, cardiothoracic, plastic, and urologic surgery. After Dr. Hanlon assumed the directorship of the American College of Surgeons, Dr. Vallee Willman was appointed chairman of the Department of Surgery. He had received his medical education at Saint Louis University and graduated in 1951, the year after Dr. Hanlon arrived. Following his first postgraduate year at Philadelphia General Hospital, Dr. Willman returned to the surgical residency at Saint Louis University and, upon completion, joined the faculty. During his chairmanship he was joined by a loyal cadre of associates that continued the investigational and research thrusts that Dr. Hanlon had initiated. The full-time complement increased to forty-five. Educational activities were conducted at several off-campus private institutions as well as at the St. Louis Veterans Administration Hospital.

During Dr. Willman's chairmanship there was a continued emphasis on investigational activities. A bequest from Dr. Theodore Cooper, a former Saint Louis University student, resident, and faculty member, permitted the construction of a research facility in his memory -- the Theodore S. Cooper Surgical Research Institute. This institute is highly functional and facilitates faculty and resident research.  Dr. Willman passed away February 8, 2009.