Calvin Trillin’s rule of thumb

The writer-humorist Calvin Trillin has said that his idea of alternative medicine is a doctor who was not trained at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Md. To the extent that Johns Hopkins is considered the gold standard of medical care, the institution's excellence owes much to its beginnings.

Johns Hopkins

Johns Hopkins

Johns Hopkins, the son of prosperous Maryland Quakers (his first name was his great-grandmother's maiden name), made a fortune investing in America's first important railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio.

In 1867, he established funds for a university and hospital to bear his name, and when he died in 1873, he left $7 million for the two institutions, the largest gift ever bequeathed in America up to that point.

John Shaw Billings, a major in the U.S. army who had distinguished himself as a surgeon in the Civil War, and for his writings on, and criticism of, the care of sick and injured soldiers, created a plan for the hospital that reflected his keen interest in infrastructure, and his assiduous research into the best hospital designs in Europe.

John Shaw Billings

John Shaw Billings

For example, he had the hospital wired for electricity years before it was on the grid. Johns Hopkins was also the first hospital in the country with central heating.

The measures Billings took to prevent the spread of disease throughout the hospital ranged from the horizonal layout of the wards, to the decision not to include elevators, to the elaborate ventilation system that prevented patients from breathing each other's air.

Billings also came up with the idea of a four-year medical school and favored a tough curriculum to weed out all but the best candidates. According the John Hopkins Medicine website, history has not given this remarkable man his due.

Getting the hospital up and running took 12 years. Even though many of the revolutionary ideas the institution embodied were his, Billings decided it was time to move on. He ended his career as director of the New York Public Library.

Johns Hopkins Hospital

An early view of the hospital

Opened in 1889, Johns Hopkins Hospital had 17 buildings (three of which remain today, part of a 22-acre campus) and cost $2 million.

Johns Hopkins Hospital had no religious affiliation, which made some people nervous. In 1896, William Wallace Spence, a wealthy Baltimore businessmen, donated a large statue of Jesus Christ that still stands in the rotunda of the Billings Administration Building.

The first woman doctor, U.S. division

As the first woman doctor in the United States, Elizabeth Blackwell had the dubious honor of showing the way for women to qualify for and enter a profession in which, at the time, they were pointedly unwelcome.

Blackwell endured repeated rejections on her way into medical school, where she was shunned by the male students and shut out of clinical opportunities by the teachers. After she finished medical school, when no one would hire her, she founded her own hospital and made her own opportunities.

Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell

Blackwell was born in England; her father was a wealthy Quaker and sugar refiner whose business eventually fell on hard times. The large family moved to the United States when Elizabeth was 11 and settled in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Blackwell''s father died when she was a teenager and the family opened a small private school, where Elizabeth began teaching.

When she decided she wanted to be a doctor, she was turned away from 29 medical schools before being accepted by the Geneva Medical School in Geneva, N.Y. In spite of the hostility she encountered there, she graduated at the top of her class in 1849, with plans to become a surgeon.

Blackwell traveled to Paris to take a course in midwifery, where she contracted an infection that cost her the sight in one eye. That put an end to her hopes of becoming a surgeon. Back in the United States, Blackwell found she couldn't get work in a hospital, so she went into private practice.

In 1853, along with her sister Emily, and Marie Zakrzewska, two other early female doctors, Blackwell founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, now New York Downtown Hospital. During the Civil War, Blackwell trained nurses to treat soldiers injured on the battlefield.

The Blackwell sisters also founded the Women's Medical College of New York in 1869, but within a few years, Elizabeth went back to England. She was a professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women for the rest of her working life. Blackwell died at the age of 89, in 1910.