Transforming medical education: U-M scientist changed the way medicine was taught

July 17, 2017  //  FOUND IN: Updates & Resources,

Throughout its history, Michigan Medicine has been the home for groundbreaking research, novel patient care practices and cutting-edge educational opportunities.

One individual who perfectly exemplified the influential work performed in Ann Arbor was Frederick Novy — a turn-of-the-century scientist who completely changed the way medicine was taught.

In honor of the U-M bicentennial, Headlines is honoring Novy and all the people, places and events that have shaped Michigan Medicine over the years.

An eccentric — and influential — character

Between 1888 and 1933, Novy was known as the eccentric scientist on campus who would wear a threadbare suit and mismatched coat. He would hole himself up in his cramped laboratory until late at night, poring over data and experiments, almost to obsession.

Before his career as a scientist, Novy was a U-M student who questioned the treatments he was taught, such as bloodletting, cupping and the application of leeches. In his student notebooks and lecture notes, now archived at U-M’s Bentley Historical Library, he observed that there were no laboratory exercises to teach students how to investigate the cause of disease, only how to treat them.

To him, adding laboratory science to a school’s curriculum would “lead to the uplifting of medical education that was needed.”

After receiving an M.S., Sc.D. of physiological chemistry and an M.D. from U-M, a forward-thinking physician named Victor Vaughan, Sc.D., M.D., took Novy under his wing and appointed him assistant in the university’s new hygienic laboratory.

A new breed of physician

Together, Novy and Vaughan — who later became dean of the medical school — worked to advance the study of bacteriology at U-M. The pair traveled abroad, studying under some of the most influential scientists of their generation.

When they returned to Ann Arbor, Novy worked to change the fundamental way medicine was taught, demanding students test and prove. He became the leader of a new breed of physician: academic researchers who did not practice medicine.

Novy’s bacteriology course, which he launched in 1889, was met with opposition from some members of the U-M faculty. But when he began to reproduce lab results with rigorous methodology, and with firm backing from Vaughan, Novy’s course quickly became a requirement for all U-M medical students.

As his career progressed, Novy would go on to engineer new lab equipment to better see organisms on a cellular level, at a time when some of his U-M colleagues didn’t even believe in germ theory. He also introduced his students to the latest scientific techniques, including preparing and staining specimens, plating and incubating bacteria and inoculating lab animals.

His work would have profound effects on a deeper understanding of how germs and bacteria behave, leading to reduced incidents of dysentery, cholera, tuberculosis and more.

“If greatness be measured in terms of medical teaching, Novy was the greatest we ever had,” wrote David Sugar, M.D., one of Novy’s students at U-M and a contributor to the Detroit Medical News.

To find out more about Novy and his impact on the field of medicine both at home and across the globe, click here. Powel Kazanjian, M.D., Ph.D., also recently published a book on Novy entitled Frederick Novy and the Development of Bacteriology in Medicine (Rutgers Press, 2017).

And if you’d like to learn more about the university’s history, here are some upcoming events to honor the U-M bicentennial. All events are open to Michigan Medicine faculty and staff:

  • Wolverines in the D, Detroit Tigers baseball game: 7 p.m., Friday, Aug. 18, Comerica Park, Detroit (For groups of 15 or more, contact
  • Biomedical Engineering bicentennial celebration: 1 p.m. – 6:15 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 14, Palmer Commons; 12:45 p.m. – 5:30 p.m., Friday, Sept. 15, Kahn Auditorium
  • Saltiel Life Sciences Symposium: 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m., Friday, Sept. 15, Palmer Commons
  • Tanner Lecture on Human Values with Dr. Allan Gibbard: 4 p.m. – 6 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 27, Michigan League; 10 a.m. – 12:30 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 28, Michigan League

Click here for a full calendar and more information on all U-M bicentennial events.

Source: Frederick Novy and the Development of Bacteriology in Medicine, by Powel Kazanjian, M.D., Ph.D. (Rutgers Press, 2017).