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A history of UTHealth & the Texas Medical Center

Ashbel Smith, MD, and The University of Texas System

Posted: November 07, 2013

In the shadow of the Texas Medical Center just south of Rice Stadium on Greenbriar is an outstanding HISD elementary school named Roberts Elementary. Over the years many UTHealth faculty and staff (including this writer) have sent their children to Roberts but few probably recognize the connection the school’s namesake has to our UT heritage.

Oran Milo Roberts (1815-1898) was a two-term governor of Texas first elected in 1878. Among his last official tasks as governor was to sign into being “The University of Texas.” He was acting on the state’s new 1876 constitution adopted with Article VII that provided, “The Legislature shall as soon as practicable, establish, organize, and provide for the maintenance, support, and direction of a university of the first class, to be located by a vote of the people of this State, and styled “The University of Texas.” Legislature also vested the UT Board of Regents with full authority for the governance and oversight of the new university.

Ashbel Smith, M.D.

Ashbel Smith, M.D.

The year was 1883 and only two years earlier, in 1881, a statewide election was held on Sept. 6 to determine what city the new state university would be placed and where the university’s new medical department would call home. Roberts coordinated the vote count and as we know today Austin and Galveston got the respective nods.

Over the years, that small UT campus in Austin that opened its doors Sept. 15, 1883 with 221 students (48 were women) and eight male faculty, has made great strides. The University of Texas System with nine academic campuses and six health components has evolved into a state and national treasure. Oran Roberts not only signed the enabling legislation to create The University of Texas, he appointed one unique and talented man as the first president (later changed to chairman) of the UT Board of Regents. His name was Ashbel Smith, M.D.

As we pause to recognize the many contributions of our UT System on Nov. 8, it is important to take a moment and remember this versatile man who came to Texas in the early days of the Republic and made invaluable contributions as a physician, educator, diplomat, surgeon general of the Army of the Republic of Texas, Civil War veteran of Shiloh, and conservationist elected first president of the Texas State Agricultural Society.

Names like Houston, Bowie, Travis, Milam, and Lamar got the headlines of the day but it was a Yale-trained physician named Smith who turned their heads and got their ear. It would be Smith, not Roberts, who would command the respectful title of “father of The University of Texas.”

Yale University

Attribution : © N. Saum

Even Sam Houston liked him

Ashbel Smith (1805-1886) was born in Harford, Connecticut. He received his medical degree at Yale in 1828 with additional training in Paris before finding his way to Texas in the spring of 1837. He would become a close friend of Sam Houston; even share a rooming house for a while. It was Houston who recognized his friend’s organizational skills and named him surgeon general of the Republic of Texas.

Smith seemed to be everywhere. In 1839 he was in Galveston treating yellow fever and earning the respect of physicians statewide. In Houston, he started the first hospital and helped draft the Texas Medical Association’s constitution in 1859 and later served as president 1881-1882.

Of his many interests, perhaps education was his favorite cause after medicine. An outstanding orator, he strongly urged that Texas underwrite the education of every child in Texas and he meant every child. Regardless of race. Topping his list was the creation of a statewide university of the highest caliber, paving the way for Governor Oran Roberts to sign off on the creation of The University of Texas. Smith was appointed by Roberts as the first president of the UT Board of Regents and worked tirelessly until his death just three years later. Roberts would end his governorship to become an early law professor at the new UT Austin.

The original minutes of the regent’s meetings were handwritten and today are in the Briscoe Center for American History at UT Austin. They speak to the dedication of the early regents to create a premier university system supported by the mineral and grazing rights of millions of acres of land provided by the state (Permanent University Fund or “PUF”) to support higher education. Copies can be found online.

Ashbel Smith’s name is revered to this day. His name adorns UT buildings, auditoriums, lectureships and professorships. In Austin on Colorado Street, one finds UT System offices and conference rooms housed in Ashbel Smith Hall. UTMB Health’s original building completed in 1891 is affectionately known as “Old Red” or more formally as the Ashbel Smith Building. Ashbel Smith professorships in the UT System honor the very best in their field – a fitting tribute to a man who was the best in many fields.

When we pause to recognize The University of Texas System on Nov. 8, we are reflecting not only on the many UT System outstanding accomplishments over the past century but also the visionaries like Ashbel Smith who were as talented as he was tireless when it came to the education of Texas citizens and the creation of a state university of the highest caliber.

Bryant Boutwell

‘Bout Time is about connecting our past to our present. Dr. Bryant Boutwell is the John P. McGovern Professor of Oslerian Medicine at the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics and a Distinguished Teaching Professor. He is the author of two books on the history of Houston and the Texas Medical Center and writes this column to share the stories of our past—stories that define who we are and how we got here.

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