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The primary-care doctor engine

Umass Memorial.

Rob Carlin

Umass Memorial.

The possibility of a state medical school in Massachusetts was seriously discussed as early as the 1940s, yet UMass Medical School didn’t officially open until 1970. The holdup? Politics. As usual. Administrators from existing medical schools at Harvard, Boston University, and Tufts worked with a Republican majority in the state Senate — imagine that — to keep the idea at bay for decades. But by 1962, with Democratic majorities in both houses and support from organized labor, the state Legislature was able to pass a bill that officially established the school. Even then, the politics of the school’s location — Worcester was one of 95 potential locations floated — and a spiraling budget almost brought the project to a halt on several occasions.

The school’s first dean, Lamar Soutter, was even forced to engage in some wry political theater to ensure the school stayed on track: In advance of a critical funding vote in 1970, Soutter made a hurried trip to Amherst to select a premed student, making a show of his acceptance to give the school a sense of inevitability.

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In addition to serving as an affordable alternative to the private medical schools, UMass Worcester was also intended to be a key producer of primary-care doctors rather than specialists, aiming to meet growing state and national demands. Today, more than half of the school’s graduates enter primary care, and a similar percentage begin their residency in-state — providing some relief to the state’s primary-care crunch. (The school has also been an economic boon to Worcester, and is now the city’s second-largest employer behind only its affiliated hospital network, UMass Memorial Health Care.)

The youngest of the UMass campuses, the Worcester medical school has an impressive trophy despite its relative youth: In 2006, biological medicine professor Craig Mello was awarded a Nobel Prize (along with Andrew Fire of Stanford) for discovering how to “turn off” genes at a molecular level. In January, the medical school opened a new $405 million research center to aid Mello’s quest for number two.

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