UNM School of Medicine

Visionary founding dean pioneers interdisciplinary program

Reginald Heber Fitz, MD

Dean of the UNM School of Medicine 1961-1968


Reprinted from UNMed Magazine (Summer 2012)

Never doubt that a small group of dedicated people changed the history of medicine in New Mexico – for that is exactly what happened. UNM President Tom Popejoy enlisted the aid of a UNM regent, the senate majority leader, the house speaker, and the NM Medical Society. Along with a $1,082,000 grant from W.K. Kellogg Foundation and $25,000 from the state legislature, New Mexico's two-year medical school was ready to take flight

Enter Reginald Heber Fitz, MD. A Harvard graduate (1945), he came to New Mexico from the University of Colorado Medical Center. Both his grandfather and father had been deans of Harvard Medical School. In addition, his years of involvement with medical schools and being highly connected in the world of medicine boded him well

Daring to Dream

Dr. Fitz was intrigued by Western Reserve University School of Medicine, which revolutionized medical education by integrating basic and clinical sciences in the early 1950s. His vision was for the UNM School of Medicine to become a four-year school. Therefore, as founding dean, he knew this was the opportunity to pursue his dream of a fully interdisciplinary enterprise. In the summer of 1961, Dean Fitz began his job seeking out facilities – a bottling plant and a mortuary – and searching to find like-minded faculty. In the beginning, he was the only faculty member, and he likes to muse, "… I had my faculty meeting in the bathtub, and I never had an argument – I was the only person there."

Knowing that his first chairpersons would be the backbone of medicine in the broadest term, Dean Fitz hired Solomon Papper, MD, chair of medicine, and Sidney Solomon, PhD, chair of physiology.

In praise of Dean Fitz, Dr. Solomon reflected, "Only a courageous, optimistic, and adventurous dreamer such as [Dean Fitz] could have accepted the appointment and really thought that it was possible to build a quality medical school in an economically lagging state with a population of less than one million … courage, optimism, a spirit of adventure, and an ability to dream were general characteristics of the faculty who had early appointments at this institution."

Engaging the community

As a tremendously social person, Dean Fitz built strong relationships with the private practice physicians in town, the Bernalillo County-Indian Hospital, and the administration and physicians at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Albuquerque. From the start, the VA hired most of the medical school faculty with the intention that they would eventually be employed by the medical school as soon as the school could afford to pay them a salary.

Meeting medical library standards

Understanding that the National Library of Medicine's standards would be critical to serving medical research and faculty needs and gaining accreditation, Dean Fitz involved President Popejoy, who then convinced the regents that it was necessary to have a separate medical library with a medical librarian and asserted "… whether it was right or not, that was the way it would be." And so it was.

Becoming a four-year program

In 1966, Governor Jack Campbell declared, "Our medical school has advanced to what I consider is certainly a national class medical school with the acquisition of the hospital facility and the rather extensive research program." And thus, the School of Medicine's four-year program as voted "in" by the State Legislature.

In June of 1968, 19 of the class's original students received their medical degrees – the first graduates of the UNM School of Medicine.

Comment on his time as founding dean

"As I look back on it, I don't think that the School could have done what it did without things happening the way they did in the beginning … I don't think, from a historical point of view, you can rethrow switches and, in fact, I think the outcome is so good now as I look at it. It's just pure delight."

When asked what he felt was his contribution, he posits, "I hired the right people, got out of their way and allowed it to happen."