The fight for medical education in Arizona, 50 years later

Front page of the Arizona Daily Star, June 13, 1961.
Front page of the Arizona Daily Star, June 13, 1961.

One of the defining moments of the rivalry between the University of Arizona and Arizona State University happened not on the basketball court, but in legislative halls and Board of Regents meetings.

A key player in the process to establish a medical school in Arizona was William R. Mathews, editor and publisher of the Arizona Daily Star and longtime Board of Regents member, who used his newspaper influence and the political strength of his position to ensure Tucson’s victory in the medical school debate.

The process was long and far from pretty.

More than 50 years after the Legislature approved the funding, the College of Medicine and Banner-University Medical Center remain the hallmark of medical education in Arizona.

The debate began in 1951, when the Maricopa County Medical Society began discussions on establishing a medical school. According to the Phoenix Gazette, the committee decided that “the cost of the project would make it unfeasible in the near future.” A 1952 article in Arizona Medicine argued that “Arizona would have neither the people nor the finances” to support a medical school for many years.

Four years later, Grady Gammage, president of Arizona State College (later ASU), brought the issue back into the spotlight. He began by getting the Board of Regents to establish nursing schools across the state. But he still dreamed of a medical school at the Tempe institution. In 1958, Gammage presented a $500,000 proposal from a Scottsdale philanthropist to establish such a school in Tempe. Not to be outdone, Tucson Medical Center offered its land and resources for a possible medical school at UA.

The lines were drawn.

Gammage died suddenly in 1959. His advocacy for a medical school in Arizona was critical. His “unremitting persistence made the school possible years in advance of what would have happened otherwise,” wrote Mathews in his manuscript, “The coming of medical education to Arizona.”

After Gammage’s death, the question of medical education evolved from if to when, and ultimately, where. Arizona was the most populous state not to have a medical school.

After months of deliberation, the Board of Regents ordered a study to answer those questions.  On July 1, 1960, under the direction of Joseph F. Volker, director of graduate studies at the University of Alabama, the work began with a citizens’ committee — 17 members from Tucson, 16 from Phoenix — in an advisory role.

June 12, 1961, came to be one of the most important days in Arizona’s history. Volker and his committee presented their report to the Board of Regents in a session closed to the press and public.

But word spread like wildfire. Not only would a medical school be necessary for Arizona, according to the report, but the University of Arizona would be the best fit for such a school. The study’s members recommended UA unanimously.

The Arizona Daily Star and then-Tucson Citizen screamed with the news: “Arizona Chosen Over ASU”; “Tucson was chosen” because of the university’s “great resource advantages” over the Tempe institution.

A front page followup from the June 14, 1961, edition of the Daily Star.

Up in Phoenix, the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette “denounced and ridiculed” the report, according to Mathews. Stories from the week of June 12 were the postmortems of a crushing defeat at the end of an otherwise promising season. A Gazette editorial dismissed the report as “an admirable preliminary guide.”

The Republic noted the “extreme caution” of legislators, with some arguing that the state do more for junior colleges before taking up the medical school. One editorial advocated for Maricopa County and ASU, dismissing the idea that UA’s status as “the more mature university” was germane to the decision. The editorial urged the Board of Regents to “seriously consider the very obvious advantages” of the county and ASU, ignoring Volker’s remark that ASU would lag behind UA for “the foreseeable future.”

A front page story from the Arizona Republic, June 13, 1961.
A front page story from the Arizona Republic, June 13, 1961.

From Mathews’ perspective at the Arizona Daily Star, “that 12 of the top men of our country from the field of medicine … should unanimously back Dr. Volker” in recommending UA “should confirm their wisdom and competence.”

“The University of Arizona had won the right to plan,” Mathews wrote. But the battle continued. As 1962 progressed it became clear that the medical school would not become a reality until the state Legislature provided the funds, and that would not happen until a substantial local effort was made.

Enter Mathews once more. His membership on the Board of Regents allowed him to witness many of the conversations about the medical school up until 1961. As an advocate for Tucson and UA, Mathews used his influence at the Star to raise money for the construction of the teaching hospital.

“Business firms would call me and say they wanted to make a donation and could they have a picture taken giving the donation,” Mathews recollected. (Pictures were welcomed, of course — for donations exceeding $1,000.)

In just over a year, nearly $3 million were raised toward the establishment of the medical school and teaching hospital in Tucson. But the legislature continued to drag its feet. It wasn’t until 1966 that construction of the hospital began.

The College of Medicine at the University of Arizona began educating students in 1967, with the first graduating class completing their work in 1969. Nearly 50 years later, the College of Medicine accepts just over 100 students each year.

“In every category,” noted a Tucson Citizen article at the time of the decision, “the University of Arizona was ahead” of ASU as a location for the medical school.

Maricopa County’s desire for a medical school would eventually be met. A medical school was finally established in Phoenix in 2007. It is operated by the University of Arizona.

Carson Suggs is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the University of Arizona School of Journalism. Contact him at 

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