A History Of The Southwestern Medical Foundation As Told By Its CEO

Kathleen Gibson, president and CEO of the Southwestern Medical Foundation.
Kathleen Gibson, president and CEO of the Southwestern Medical Foundation.

Later this evening, the Southwestern Medical Foundation—UT Southwestern’s philanthropic partner—will gather the city’s business and civic elite to thank them for helping fund one of the nation’s most renowned academic medical centers.

Dr. Edward Cary and Karl Hoblitzelle started the foundation in 1939, and eventually came up with an idea to build the first major medical center in the southwestern portion of the country. And the two couldn’t have done it without the business community, which chipped in $1 million during the university’s first decade of existence. According to the Consumer Price Index, that amount today would be about $14 million.

The philanthropy has only continued through the years. Most recently, the foundation’s efforts have helped offset the cost of the $800 million William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital. Tonight at Old Parkland, legendary broadcaster and Television Hall of Fame inductee Jim Lehrer will chat with Lee Cullum, the journalist who hosts CEO on KERA-TV, as a way to give back to the business community that has supported the foundation for more than 75 years.

As UT Southwestern President Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky has said, “the medical center was not a creation of the city, but of the citizens of Dallas seeking a need for their community.” In this conversation below, which has been edited for length and clarity, Foundation CEO Kathleen Gibson gives a rundown of how the foundation and UT Southwestern began here in Dallas.

How the foundation’s founder discovered a vision for a major academic medical center in Dallas, and also helped pioneer the concept of privatized insurance:

Kathleen Gibson: Edward Cary, the founder of Southwestern Medical Foundation, came to Dallas in the late 1800s. He had poor eyes and there was no ophthalmologist in town. He went to Bellevue, which was the best medical school in the country to be an ophthalmologist. And he saw healthcare very well developed in the northeast, but not developed down here. So he made plans to settle in the New York area, but then his mother died and he came back to help. He never left Dallas again. But he called Dallas a medical wilderness. And this was around 1939.

When we were researching for the 75th anniversary, we found that Cary was looking for a great medical center to be built in the Dallas area by really visionary city leaders. What they said was, why not Dallas?

It would be the seventh great medical center in the United States, up there Cornell and John Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic. At that time, populations were moving here and we have got this beautiful central part of the country. So why not build a great southwestern medical center? And so he goes on to work on it for 40 years, literally he gave it everything. He gave it his money, he gave it his talent, he started the medical arts building downtown, and he was dean of the medical school at different points. He was part of helping Dallas sort of sort out what makes a good medical school from one that’s not very good.

But we had real problems in funding medicine entirely. So part of what he worked on for 40 years was trying to find a mechanism for funding. And all of a sudden that became very obvious. He became head of the Dallas County Medical Society, he became head of the Texas Medical Association, he became head of the American Medical Association. Before that, in 1932, 1933, congress was talking about the government taking over healthcare. Cary has this profound AMA discussion talking about what was bubbling up in Dallas. At this point, there was Blue Cross and Blue Shield in North Carolina and Dallas. And so Cary said, ‘we really think that better medicine will occur if we have private insurance. We think we can develop private insurance.’ He was one of the real leaders in helping develop private insurance.

But, you know, the whole vision wasn’t about the school. The whole vision was about building a great medical center in Dallas. So in ‘39 he’d architected all of the buildings of what the medical center ultimately would need for that day and time. And we have letters from the foundation that are asking for the money for these buildings. We have plans and we have the letters. It’s just astonishing.

Four years later, in 1943, the Baylor School of Medicine leaves Dallas for Houston, where it remains today. Dallas was left without a major academic medical center, and Cary saw an opening.

Gibson: So now all hands are on deck, and they’re saying ‘we are going to build a medical school.’ There was no foundation probably in the history of the world that could have said ‘ no problem, we’ll build a school’ except the one run by Cary. We can’t find a story like it. I think it’s really applicable to guiding us on a firm foundation. Today, together as a primary philanthropic partner with the school that we started, this philosophy guides us toward those high ideals.

It comes from the support of not only philanthropists, but philanthropists who are business-minded people who see the opportunity to invest in this. What happened in ‘43 was actually quite a crisis, you know? You lose your school. And if the premise is that medical education determines the health and the quality of care in your city, well, you’ve got to do something about medical education. So that was the first order of priority at that point.

Cary asked a district command if he could educate some doctors in the military because you couldn’t get supplies. So we had plywood barracks, all through (what is now Old Parkland) for 15 years on this campus. He insisted it be by Old Parkland as that was the best teaching hospital. He insisted on enrolling best students, hiring the best faculty. Right as he started, we had faculty known for their research. So his definition was that a great student with a mediocre faculty won’t stand up. You have to have great students that will help you keep your great faculty and your great faculty that are doing great research that informs better care. So you have you do that circle from then to now and you can see the results. The results are extraordinary.

He knew what quality looked like. But that was expensive. And finding the ways to fund and the mechanisms to fund I think was one of the real tributes to Cary. So he says, the budget needs to be $100,000 in operating money for the next 10 years.  We need some capital money which we’ll go raise through philanthropy, but he appealed to the chamber and the Dallas Citizens Council and said, ‘would you please support our operating budget of $100,000 for the next 10 years’ and they said sure. They committed $1 million over the next 10 years. And so for this event we really wanted to say, ‘the business community built this.’

And the business community has reaped the benefits. Healthcare is one of the drivers that major employers look for when deciding where to headquarter. UT Southwestern, which educates about half of all practicing physicians in North Texas, has played an integral role in staffing and driving the Dallas area as a research hub and healthcare delivery hub. 

Gibson: What Cary talked about was how this really will be good for business. Business will prosper if we take care of our citizens. It was innovative for that time.

Posted in Education, Hospitals, News.