UNM School of Medicine's first class
The UNM School of Medicine, which accepted its first class in 1964, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

The University of New Mexico School of Medicine is marking its first 50 years, celebrating the visionaries who cobbled together $25,000 dollars, a former soda bottling plant and an abandoned mortuary to launch a badly needed medical school in 1964.

A "founders dinner" kicked off the year-long celebration Thursday, honoring a pioneering group of medical and health leaders from UNM, the New Mexico Medical Society and state government who, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, realized New Mexico needed its own medical school to train physicians and provide health care for the state’s growing population.

“Fifty short years ago, UNM President Tom Popejoy and leaders of the New Mexico Medical Society joined with the university regents and members of the New Mexico Legislature to make the dream of a medical school into a reality,” recalled Dr. Paul Roth, UNM chancellor for health sciences and School of Medicine dean. “Since, our longstanding emphasis on problem-based and student-centered learning, and our groundbreaking primary care curriculum have helped shape contemporary medical education around the world. We are among the vanguard of medical schools that have integrated public health into our curriculum.”

With the help of a $25,000 appropriation from the New Mexico State Legislature, the medical school opened its doors in a former bottling plant and an abandoned mortuary. Its first class was comprised of 24 students, led by 36 faculty members in a two-year Basic Science in Medicine Program. The school's six original academic departments included biochemistry, internal medicine, molecular biology, pathology, psychiatry and surgery.

Fast forward to today, and the medical school's 2014 class includes 103 students entering a four-year MD program, plus students in a number of other medical programs, including dental hygiene, emergency medical services, public health, medical laboratory sciences, occupational therapy, physical therapy, physician assistant and radiologic sciences. The programs are organized in nearly 30 academic departments and centers housed in more than 20 major buildings.

Since its inception, the SOM has graduated more than 7,400 doctors, and approximately 40 percent of all New Mexico licensed physicians received training at UNM. The SOM provides clinical health and research programs in 141 New Mexico communities and in 2014 alone was awarded 702 funded research projects worth $135 million. 

In his remarks at Thursday's founders dinner, Dr. James Martinez, president of the New Mexico Medical Society and UNM SOM alumnus, acknowledge just how important the original medical school mission has become for New Mexicans.

“More than 50 years ago, several Society leaders put together a plan to establish this school. It took years of discussions, arguments, compromises and deals,” he said. “The Society congratulates and commends the school for its dedication to educating and training world-class physicians and scientists, sponsoring cutting-edge medical research and providing high-quality clinical care in service of the health needs of all New Mexicans.”

Those who attended the founder's dinner included Tom Popejoy, son of UNM President Thomas L. Popejoy (1948-‘68), who lobbied the NM State Legislature to fund a medical school; Nan Burroughs, daughter of New Mexico Gov. John Burroughs (1959-’61), who supported the creation of the School of Medicine when the New Mexico Legislature appropriated funding; Michael Campbell, son of New Mexico Gov. Jack Campbell (1963-’67), who voted in favor of founding a two-year medical school in 1961 as a state legislator, and later, as governor, spearheaded the ex­pansion to a four-year school; and Roth, who is the longest standing U.S. medical school dean, holding the post for the past 20 years.