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“The only medical man on the Stanford campus”: A trip back in time with Ray Lyman Wilbur

When United States President Warren Harding fell gravely ill while visiting San Francisco back in 1923, Stanford’s Ray Lyman Wilbur, MD, was called from his Sierra vacation to Harding’s death bed at the Palace Hotel. He was summoned by the Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, a lifelong friend from Wilbur's days as a physiology undergraduate at Stanford.

A recent Stanford Magazine article tells this tale and sheds light on the life of the university's former president who helped cement the School of Medicine's role within the university.

As detailed in the article, Wilbur received his BA and MA degrees at Stanford before earning his MD at Cooper Medical College in San Francisco in 1899. Wilbur then returned to Stanford as an assistant professor of physiology and began a busy medical practice as the only nearby physician. Wilbur recalled treating a professor's son who was suffering from severe abdominal pains:

As there was no local hospital available, I had to rush the boy up to the Lane Hospital in San Francisco by train, there being no ambulances. The incident led to the discovery that I was the only medical man on the Stanford campus.

Wilbur could often be seen bicycling or riding his horse named Bob all over campus, as he busily made his patient rounds — tackling everything from mishaps caused by excessive drinking to outbreaks of infectious diseases like smallpox and typhoid. But when his alma mater was deeded to Stanford as a gift in 1908 — an acquisition that was controversial in part due to the university's limited funds — he put aside his thriving medical practice to fight for the school's survival.

As executive head and then dean of the struggling School of Medicine, he made the novel move of obtaining outside funding to expand the school and its affiliated hospitals and clinics. The article describes his successes:

By the eve of World War I, the institute had more applicants than it could accept and had implemented several novel programs, including an emergency dental clinic and a rotation for interns at the Napa State Hospital. (President Herbert) Hoover, by then a university trustee, was so impressed that he took time out of his European wartime relief work to lobby for Wilbur’s leadership of the whole university.

Wilbur, who later served as both president and chancellor of the university, devoted most of his life to Stanford campus and the health of its students. His legacy lives on – particularly in the form of Stanford’s School of Medicine, which may not exist today without his staunch support.

Jennifer Huber, PhD, is a science writer with extensive technical communications experience as an academic research scientist, freelance science journalist, and writing instructor.

Previously: A trip down memory lane: Stories from the early days of the School of Medicine and The “terribly exciting” days of Stanford’s young Department of Medicine
Photo by Mohenjo Daro (Ray Lyman Wilbur family photo)

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