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The Faculty of Medicine and Surgery of the University of Santo Tomas of Manila: A Parable of Inconspicuous Beginning with an Unexpected Result

By Fr. Angel Aparicio, O.P. (Regent, Faculty of Medicine and Surgery)

It was in the middle of the nineteenth century when modern or “positive medicine” started to flourish. Physicians became more pragmatic and engaged in the analysis of the origins and evolution of life, the physical and physiological

approaches to human life, the impact of the environment in the health of the individual and of the community. This systematic approach led to new discoveries and to the advancement in the different medical fields such as histology, physiology, bacteriology, surgery, etc. which were to constitute the foundations of present medical knowledge and practice.

What happened in the Philippines? Despite the precariousness of medicine and medical services in the Islands, a most auspicious event took place which would transform the traditional practices of healing of mediquillos, herbolarios and curanderas into a more rational approach to healing. This was the establishment of the first school of scientific medicine in this part of the world, the creation of the Faculties of Pharmacy and Medicine and Surgery in the University of Santo Tomas of Manila.

The University of Santo Tomas of Manila, considered as the oldest university in the east was conceived by Fr. Miguel de Benavides, O.P. the second Archbishop of Manila before his death in 1605. It started as a very modest school run by the Dominican of the Philippines under the name of Colegio de Nuestra Senora del Rosario. Classes started in 1619 with twelve (12) students and two professors. Two Chairs were

created with the classical faculties of Arts (Philosophy) and Theology for the formation of future priests.

It has been a long journey of more than four centuries, beset with difficulties of all kinds, surmounted by the indomitable character of its founder and a concerted effort sustained by his successor, the Dominicans of the Holy Rosary. It struggled for one century. Already in the 18th century, the first attempts to create a school of medicine were undertaken by the Dominicans but still without success. Only in 1734 the chairs of Roman and Canon Law were added. This gave a great impulse and new life to the University. However, it would take another century before the University could boast about a new step forward by the creation of the two faculties, that of Pharmacy and Medicine.

The spirit of the Enlightenment, the ongoing scientific progress, the educational reforms undertaken in the 19th century and the increase in the population of the Islands were crying for the modernization of the public health system and services and for the establishment of medical schools in the Philippines, -writes the university historian Fr. Fidel Villarroel.
Finally, the government of the Islands in a decree signed by Governor General Rafael Izquierdo, dated May 28, 1871 approved the creation of the Faculties of Pharmacy and Medicine in the University of Santo Tomas. Thus , next year’s celebration of the Sesquicentennial of the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery of the University of Santo Tomas, the cradle of medical schools and of most health institutions in the country is most timely even in this time of pandemic.

Like in the past, our Faculty of Medicine and Surgery is confronted with tremendous hurdles. However, the example of our predecessors should inspire us in our efforts to cultivate the seed planted in this field. We cannot give in to feelings of defeat: The modernization of its facilities, the development of a cohesive community, the mending of strained partnerships, the strengthening of our alumni relations, the search for new avenues of research, the desire to be of service to the Filipino people, etc. These and other concerns should be approached with the same vision and courage of our predecessors.

The beginnings of the Faculty, as it had happened with the beginnings of the University, were very modest. But, again, it was the determination of the university authorities, the competence and commitment of the first professors, the eagerness and enthusiasm for knowledge of the first generation of students, notwithstanding the derogatory remarks of Jose Rizal, that set the firm foundations of what has been labeled by a former secretary of the Faculty, somehow triumphalistically, as the biggest, the brightest and the best school of medicine in the country.

Indeed, inconspicuous beginnings will have an unexpected result!