An RX for health care on the Hilltop

By Charles Milhauser

Today’s Cornellians have become used to the convenience of visiting Ebersole Health Center during cold and flu season and receiving medicine and a can of chicken noodle soup. Yet the college’s health practices have not always been so centralized, or so practical.

Cornell did not hire its first health care professional, a nurse, until 1923. That nurse stayed for just nine months, but her successor, Alice Isaacson, RN, held the position until 1944 and is credited with establishing the college’s health service. During her tenure, student health services moved from the second floor of College Hall into a house located in what is now the Pfeiffer quad. The converted house became an infirmary and a residence for nurses.

Local doctors provided medical services, as they do today, until Cornell established the position of college physician in 1944 for Dr. Francis Ebersole, Class of 1902 (M.D., Johns Hopkins). Ebersole died in an automobile accident in 1951, leaving a bequest that, along with a bequest from his brother, Professor William Ebersole (Greek, registrar, and twice acting president), allowed the college to erect a building especially for student health services. Ebersole Health Center—its cornerstone shows a caduceus—opened in 1955 with an in-patient hospital.

Eight doctors followed Ebersole in succession until the college outsourced its physician services to a local consortium in 1983–84. The position of college nurse was upgraded in 1946 to director of health services.

Dental services are still provided by local dentists. One of the earliest came in 1874 on the first Monday of every month. Another, in 1877, visited every fourth week, but stayed several days “to attend to all who may need his services.” Little professional attention was paid to mental health before the appointment of a staff psychologist in 1964.

Epidemics have always required special attention. A smallpox scare in 1872 led to vaccination of the entire student body. In 1890, the trustees appropriated $500 to build a four-room isolation hospital after a student was quarantined on the upper floor of Bowman with scarlet fever. An even worse outbreak of scarlet fever occurred in 1917, and the college converted the top floor of Bowman Hall into a hospital and quarantined the campus. About all the college could do during the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918 was spray the throats of its students. Today, Cornell recommends the meningitis vaccine and requires two MMR (mumps, measles, and rubella) vaccines for matriculation.

Cornell has served society by producing numerous physician alumni from its earliest days. William Alton Burr, Class of 1867, was the first Cornellian to earn a medical doctorate (Hahnemann Medical College, Philadelphia, 1869). Hannah Golden, Class of 1873, was the first of many alumnae to go on to medical school (University of Iowa, 1882). Two of Cornell’s first five women physicians became surgeons.

Kate Mason, Class of 1882, earned her M.D. in 1885 at the Women’s Medical College in Chicago, and married George Washington Hogle, Class of 1889 (M.D., Miami Medical College, Cincinnati, 1891). They set up a clinic a block from the college. It was on an upper floor in this house—later Morgan Funeral Home—that Professor T. Edwin Rogers’ mother delivered Cornell’s future beloved biologist.