Graefenberg Medical Institute

The Graefenberg Medical Institute, founded in 1852 in Dadeville, Tallapoosa County, was the first functioning medical school chartered by the Alabama legislature. The school was established by Philip Madison Shepard and operated until his death in 1861. About 50 individuals graduated from the school, including five of Shepard’s children.

Graefenberg Historical Marker Shepard was born in 1812 in Columbia County in eastern Georgia. At age 19, he began 18 months of medical study to qualify for private practice under John B. Boone in the small town of Social Circle in Walton County. Seeking additional training, he entered Augusta Medical College and graduated in 1835. In 1836, he served in the Seminole War and then moved to Alabama with his wife Louisa Fielder Shepard and the first of what would be their seven children, settling in LaFayette, Chambers County. In 1844, the family moved to Wetumpka, Elmore County, and by 1846 they had moved to Dadeville. His property was located on the public road to Dudleyville, approximately one mile northeast of Dadeville, near the intersection of Booger Hollow Road and Dudleyville Road.

In 1845, the Alabama legislature had granted a charter for the Alabama Medical University in Wetumpka, and Shepard presumably moved there to join the faculty. The school never opened, however, so Shepard set up a medical practice and began to farm to supplement his income. In the summer of 1851, Shepard advertised in the Montgomery Advertiser and State Gazette newspaper informing readers that his infirmary in Dadeville was open and that he would soon begin medical school services. On February 7, 1852, the legislature granted him a ten-year charter, which listed him as owner and professor; it was amended to last for 20 years in 1858. In addition to Shepard, three other physicians—James T. Shackleford, William M. A. Mitchell, and J. T. Bankston—were named as trustees. Shepard is believed to have gotten the name of his school from an institute in Austria. The school offered instruction in surgery, obstetrics, physiology, and materia medica, as pharmacology was known at the time. The faculty consisted of the three trustees and Shepard himself. Instruction took place in a two- or three-story building (accounts differ) located across the road from the Shepard home. The structure housed the medical school’s library, pharmacy, anatomical laboratory, classrooms, and auditorium. Cadavers for medical school use were apparently also stored on the property.

James L. Gilder was the first graduate of the medical school, receiving his M.D. degree on April 24, 1854. The cost of a regular session at the school was about $140, which included room and board. Graduation ceremonies were held at different times during the year and included concerts, speaking contests, and military drills that drew crowds to the school. The board of trustees also conducted public examinations of candidates that lasted three days and nights and involved thousands of questions.

Shepard’s educational efforts extended beyond medical education. In 1858, he sought and received a charter to create Winston Male College and in 1860 another for the Octavia Walton Le Vert Normal College for Young Ladies, named for the Mobile socialite. Both “schools” were actually housed at the medical school and shared all the facilities. Students who could not reasonably commute to school every day lived in an annex to the Shepard home. The schools were probably funded through student fees like the medical school.

In 1859, the rival Medical College of Alabama (now the University of Alabama School of Medicine in Birmingham) opened in Mobile. It was chartered as a department of the University of Alabama and received state appropriations that Shepard had sought for his school but never received. The state medical association also supported the Mobile school, likely because most physicians believed that a larger city would provide better clinical resources.

Four of Shepard’s sons graduated from his medical school. John Fielder Shepard and J. Joseph Shepard also completed additional medical studies at the New Orleans Medical College. Philip Madison Shepard Jr. and Orlando Tyler Shepard did not receive formal academic training beyond their father’s school. Philip, John, and Orlando also taught at the school and all remained in Tallapoosa County to practice medicine and raise families. Shepard’s daughter Louisa Maria Shepard also was a graduate. She is believed to be the first woman to graduate from a medical school in the South at a time when degreed female physicians were largely unknown in the region and only a few were practicing in the northeast. In December 1868, she married William H. Presley, and the couple moved to Texas in 1887; she died in 1901.

In April 1861, Shepard cut himself while performing an autopsy on an exhumed body. He apparently developed septicemia, a blood infection, and died within a few days. His actual death date is unknown, and his presumed vault in Graefenberg Cemetery is unmarked. The school closed soon after his death. An appraisal of his estate filed in December 1861 noted his wealth: he owned various animals, furniture, and supplies including anatomical and chemical apparatus and is listed as having possessed nine enslaved people. The building that housed the pharmacy, library, and other facilities burned in 1873, and all of the school’s collections and records were destroyed. In 1886, at least 14 graduates of the school were still practicing in Alabama.

Additional Resources

Altes, Theo. “Philip Madison Shepard 1812-1861.” Southern Medical Bulletin 57 (June 1969): 64-69.

Thompson, James A., and Michael A. Kronenfeld. “Graefenberg Medical Institute.” Alabama Journal of the Medical Sciences 16 (October 1979): 350-52.

Turner, Roy H. “Graefenberg, the Shepard Family’s Medical School.” Annals of Medical History (Series 2 1933) 5: 548-60, .

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