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The History of Semmelweis University, 1769-2010

1769-1848
1849-1919
1920-1951
1952-2010

1769-1848
The roots of our University reach back to the 18th century, when Empress Maria Theresa added a medical faculty to the only Hungarian university at the time, the University of Nagyszombat (Trnava). As the first step the Empress, in a charter dated 17 July 1769, raised the university to the status of a “royal institute” and supplied it with grants meant to finance the Medical Faculty, which was to be established shortly thereafter.

Ceremonial opening of the University in Buda, 1780

Ceremonial opening of the University in Buda, 1780

The actual formation of the new Faculty began following the Empress’s decree of 7 November 1769. The organising work was vested on her Dutch court physician, Gerard van Swieten, who had previously organised the Empire’s health care system and modernised the University of Vienna as well.

The Medical Faculty opened in November 1770, with only five departments. It was given a building of its own in 1772, but soon the whole university left the small town of Nagyszombat behind, moving to the centre of the country: Buda. Although the university had been functioning continuously since its establishment, the ceremonial opening and re-foundation of the university, held in the Buda Castle, only took place in June of 1780, three years after the move.  When the city of Buda did not prove to be a suitable location for the university either, it moved on to Pest in 1784. The Medical Faculty finally found a home in a former Jesuits’ monastery at the corner of Hatvani (now Kossuth Lajos) and Újvilág (now Semmelweis) streets.

Corner of Hatvani and Újvilág streets: the University's first home in Pest

Corner of Hatvani and Újvilág streets: the University’s first home in Pest

Meanwhile, the number of departments and students at the Faculty steadily increased, with the latter exceeding the impressive one thousand mark by the early 1830s. In addition to training physicians, the Faculty also trained surgeon masters, civil surgeons, pharmacist masters, veterinarians and midwives.

The language of instruction at the Medical Faculty was Latin well into the 19th century, although the university’s other faculties taught their courses in either German or Hungarian. The declaration of Hungarian as the official state language as part of the nationalist reforms of the 1840s found medical education wholly unprepared, as a sophisticated set of technical medical terminologies did not yet exist in Hungarian. Indeed, the professors of the Medical Faculty ended up contributing greatly to the eventual creation of a modern medical vocabulary in the national vernacular.

The Revolution of 1848 and subsequent War of Independence also marked a turning point in the university’s history. The April Laws, issued by the Hungarian Diet, contained a separate article (1848: XIX. art.) dealing with the university, which declared its independence and reaffirmed the liberal principle of academic freedom.

A significant portion of the university’s students and staff members became involved in the War of Independence which broke out that September, partly by undertaking medical officer duties in the Honvéd defence force, and partly by organising army medic courses and military health care management. Following the imperial victory, retaliation against these individuals did not tarry.

1849-1919
The defeat of the War of Independence severely affected the Faculty’s academic staff, some of whom emigrated (e.g. Ágoston Schoepf-Merei), while others were imprisoned (e.g. János Balassa, Vilmos Zlamál). The long-term development plans that had been conceived in 1848 had to be taken off the agenda for a long time.

2nd Department of Surgery

2nd Department of Surgery (SE Archives)

Nonetheless, some modernisation did take place during this reactionary period; from 1850 on, secondary school graduation (G.C.E) became compulsory for admission to the university and the post of Faculty Director was abolished.

Although practitioners were still being trained in nine departments, the surgical master programme, which had previously been constantly filled to capacity, withered and, as had happened earlier in Lemberg, Olomouc and Salzburg, was eventually discontinued in Budapest as well. In 1872, the surgical guilds were also dissolved.

As a result of the Compromise of 1867, Hungarian became the country’s official language once again, as well as the only language of instruction at what was known by this time as the University of Budapest. As a direct consequence, foreign-speaking students that had previously arrived in large numbers from not only countries outside the Habsburg Empire, but from the non-Hungarian territories within it as well, now effectively disappeared from the university, thus temporarily stripping the Medical Faculty of its multicultural character.

Anatomy class

Anatomy class (SE Archives)

At the same time, the training of doctors and pharmacists in Hungary and, indeed, these professions as a whole, were met with an entirely new set of challenges. The civic and economic prosperity and the associated public health problems caused by rapid urbanization on the one hand, and the fast-paced development of the medical field on the other, exerted a bilateral pressure on what was, by then, a miserable and crowded Medical Faculty. The practical part of education had been regarded weak even earlier than this, owing mostly to the lack of a large, public hospital background.

All these issues were answered through the development plans for the construction of a health institution network, and the improvement of higher education to serve this network. In 1872, the surgical master and doctor of medicine programmes were merged, and a unified medical training system introduced. In that same year, a second Hungarian university of sciences was founded in Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca), which also included a medical faculty. Following this development, in 1873, the construction of brand new sites for the Budapest Medical Faculty could also commence. The construction work, which lasted until 1911, absorbed a significant amount of money, amounting to about 25 million crowns.  However, the end result was a scientific establishment that was on par with contemporary standards in all respects, capable of significant academic performance and with the capacity to train an ample number of qualified health care professionals

From the 1880s onward, the number of students enrolled in the Medical Faculty was steadily over 1000, a number which was still considered extremely high as little as 50 years ago. Starting in 1895, women were also legally allowed to be admitted to the medical and pharmacy courses.

Administering rabies vaccines, 1903

Administering rabies vaccines, 1903 (SE Archives)

During the First World War, many of the Faculty’s students and teachers joined the Austro-Hungarian army. The number of serviceable hospital beds was hastily increased to 2000, half of which were reserved for the wounded. The shift to a war economy brought significant financial constraints to the university as well but, as a silver lining amid the misfortune, the majority of the construction work had already been undertaken prior to the war’s eruption, and so the Budapest Medical Faculty was successfully completed in spite of this.

Following the armistice, disarmed students returned to the university from the trenches en masse, creating an impossible situation for the institution. The so-called Aster (or, Chrysanthemum) Revolution of 1919 also caused severe problems, as did the brief proletarian dictatorship which followed soon after, and which almost immediately withdrew the university’s autonomy and intruded deeply into its internal affairs. This provided a small taste of the methods the Communist dictatorship would employ some 30 years later.

1920-1951

The war, the Commune, the Romanian occupation of Budapest, the truncation of the country through the Treaty of Trianon and the general political uncertainty gave rise to extremely serious economic and social tensions, which had an impact on the university as well. Fraternal societies began to form with the participation of the veteran students, anti-Semitic riots broke out and the university, for the first time in its history, had to limit the number of students that could be admitted. In 1921, the university was renamed Péter Pázmány University, in honour of the university’s original founder. The next year, a reform to medical education was introduced, which increased the training period from five to six years and the number of finals from three to four. In 1936, a congress held on the state of national higher education also elaborated important recommendations for change but, of these, only those relating to the training of pharmacists were realised.

Ward in the 3rd Department of Internal Medicine

Ward in the 3rd Department of Internal Medicine (SE Archives)

In the interwar years, no new developments were introduced at either Péter Pázmány University or its Medical Faculty, as all resources were being put towards the construction – from scratch – of three universities in the countryside, two of which had been transported from territories lost by Hungary through the Treaty of Trianon. In 1936, two of the university’s clinics were also closed in this spirit of thrift.

Nonetheless, the Faculty’s academic performance continued to be ranked among the leading faculties of the world, thanks to groundwork which had been laid during the years of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy (1867-1918).

The Second World War erupted in 1939; however, aside from the compulsory military service which involved the teaching staff, the war did not have a significant impact on the university until the German occupation of Hungary in the spring of 1944.

In spite of being expressly instructed to do so by the Nyilas (Hungarian Nazi) government, the university refused to be transported to Germany. However, even before the military siege ring completely closed around Budapest, many upper-year engineer, medical, pharmacy and veterinary students (i.e. representatives of all the professions that were regarded as important for the continuation of the war) were forcibly resettled through drafting. Thus, a total of about 600 medical and pharmacy students, together with a portion of the academic staff, were taken away, some to Halle and others to Austria.

Photograph showing the damage to the 2nd Department of Internal Medicine following the Seige of Budapest, 1945

Damage to the 2nd Department of Internal Medicine (left) following the Seige of Budapest, 1945 (SE Archives)

The Siege of Budapest caused enormous damage to the university’s buildings, the value of which amounted to over 13 million gold pengő. After the war, large-scale politically-motivated purges began of the teaching staff, the majority of whom were thus replaced.

The gradually developing Communist dictatorship eventually transformed not only the make-up of the university’s academic staff and the social composition of its students, but, in fact, the entire university itself. In 1950, the university’s namesake, Péter Pázmány (archbishop of Esztergom, who had founded the University of Nagyszombat), was deemed unacceptable by the Communist regime, and so the university’s name was changed to Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE). Then, in 1951, in a broader move based on the Russian model, the medical faculties were split off from their parent universities and turned into independent, specialised institutions. At the same time, they were taken out from under the inspection of the Ministry of Culture and placed under the newly formed Ministry of Health. The newly renamed Eötvös Loránd University’s Medical Faculty thus became the Budapest University of Medicine (BOTE).

1952-2010

Lecture at the 1st Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 1950s

Lecture at the 1st Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 1950s (SE Archives)

In the post-war period, the newly formed Budapest University of Medicine enjoyed a period of significant and extensive growth, as several hospitals – converted into clinics – were added to it. The University managed to establish previously missing departments, though the cost of this rapid development has been the University’s high degree of territorial fragmentation.

Following the withdrawal of the University’s autonomy by the Communist regime, it was placed under the strict central control of the Ministry of Health, which even prescribed the extent of its participation in regional medical care.

At the same time, medical research was starting to involve increasingly expensive areas, which consequently resulted in the University’s lagging behind the world’s wealthier nations. To make matters worse, there was a political trend of reclusion in the 1950s, due to the exclusive Soviet influence affecting even the sciences.

The essential components of a true university, such as the rector’s office and the faculties (then called the Faculty of General Medicine, Faculty of Dentistry and Faculty of Pharmacy, respectively), took their final form in 1955. Pharmaceutical training was moved from Eötvös Loránd University of Sciences to the Budapest University of Medicine in 1951, and the training of doctors of dentistry, in an entirely new system, commenced in 1952.

Medical students among the protesters during the Revolution of 1956

Medical students among the protesters during the Revolution of 1956 (SE Archives)

During the Revolution of 1956, which broke out on October 23 of that year, the University found itself at the centre of events, with its clinics essentially taking the role of war hospitals and the University staff and students showing a truly heroic commitment to the national cause. Within a few weeks, the University buildings were afflicted with damage much more serious than that which had followed the siege of 1945. Approximately 180 professors and staff members, as well as a large number of students, fled the country in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution.

After the Soviet consolidation, development of the University continued, albeit at a slower pace than previously. The greatest investment of the period, the Theoretical Block at Nagyvárad tér (NET), was completed in 1978. Although this impressive structure is but one element of the grandiose plans which had been conceived in the 1960s, unfortunately, the majority of these have remained merely in the form of blueprints.

Bicenntenial of the foundation of the Medical Faculty at the University of Nagyszombat, 1969

Bicenntenial of the foundation of the Medical Faculty at the University of Nagyszombat, 1969 (SE Archives)

With the introduction of Goulash Communism in the 1960s, the development of contacts with the western world, albeit gradual and under close supervision, became possible. The increasingly number of external relations promoted the return of Hungarian professionals to the international sphere, and to their ability to keep apace of scientific developments.

On 7 November 7 1969, the bicentennial of the founding of the Medical Faculty at the University of Nagyszombat, the University decided to mark the occasion by taking the name of its most famous professor, Ignác Semmelweis, also known as “the saviour of mothers”. The Budapest University of Medicine thus became Semmelweis University of Medicine.

Although foreign students could be found at the University from the 1950s onwards, in general, only those students from countries regarded by the political leadership as fraternal states (e.g. Albania, North Korea, East Germany, Vietnam) were permitted to attend. At that time, these international students were trained in Hungarian. The relative liberalisation of the 1970s resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of foreign students, who began to arrive from not only the “socialist camp”, but the so-called Third World as well. The most significant development in the training of foreign students was arguably the commencement of classes in German and English in 1983 and 1989, respectively. In part as a direct result of this, the number of international students continued to rise right through the regime change, and they continue to be important pillars of the University to this day.

The University's NET building, shortly after its construction in 1976

The University’s NET building, shortly after its construction in 1976 (SE Archives)

The process of democratisation, which started in 1989, resulted in important changes for the University, the most significant of which was probably the restoration of its autonomy.

In the late 1990s, in the spirit of institutional integration, the reform of the network of Hungarian higher education was on the agenda, the aim of which was a rational integration of the fragmented institutional structure. On January 1, 2000, Semmelweis University of Medicine (SOTE) merged with the Imre Haynal University of Health Sciences (HIETE) and the University of Physical Education (TF), and renamed Semmelweis University. With the addition of the Faculty of Health- and Public Services in 2010, the University now comprises a total of six faculties, namely the Faculty of Medicine, the Faculty of Dentistry, the Faculty of Pharmacy, the Faculty of Health Sciences, the Faculty of Physical Education and Sport Sciences and the aforementioned Faculty of Health- and Public Services.

As the greatest investments of this latter period, one should certainly mention the transplantation and surgical clinics which were commissioned in the early 1990s, the new Dentistry Centre, as well as the new Basic Medical Science Centre on Tűzoltó street, the latter two of which were both financed within this new system (PPP).