Morgan Smith (1868–1935)

Morgan Smith—a physician, administrator, and legislator—was a leader in the drive to improve public health and medical education in Arkansas. Following his service as dean of the Arkansas Medical School, now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), from 1912 to 1927, he represented Pulaski County as a Democrat in the state House of Representatives from 1928 to 1934.

Born on March 8, 1868, in El Dorado (Union County), Morgan Smith was the second son of James Monroe Smith, who was a planter and merchant, and Mary Josephine Morgan Smith. He had two brothers and one sister. His father, who formerly served in various county offices, was a state senator and a representative from Union County.

Educated in the local public schools, Smith attended Arkansas Industrial University, now the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), in 1885. In 1886, he enrolled in the Arkansas Medical School in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and graduated in 1889. Shortly after obtaining his medical degree, he moved to Hillsboro (Union County) and began practicing medicine. In 1891, he married Henrie Ellen Shulenberger, who was from Hillsboro. The couple had no surviving children.

Returning to El Dorado in 1896, he formed one of the area’s largest medical practices and served as the city physician. In the late 1890s, he attended the Tulane University Medical School in New Orleans, Louisiana. Enrolling as a special student in 1903, he earned a second medical degree from Tulane in 1904. In 1902, he cofounded the Union County Medical Society and served as its first president.

In 1903, the Arkansas Medical Society (AMS) appointed Smith and Dr. J. S. Corn of Nashville (Howard County) to investigate John W. Decker’s Gate City Medical College (GCM). In 1902, Decker, a physician and promoter from Sulphur Rock (Independence County), moved Sulphur Rock College (SRC) to Texarkana (Miller County). Decker, who was an AMS and Miller County Medical Society (MCMS) member, converted SRC into a graduate medical school and renamed it Gate City Medical College and School of Pharmacy.

In May 1903, Decker moved GCM across the state line to Texarkana, Texas. Smith and Corn completed their investigation before the move. Citing GCM’s weak admission requirements and other deficiencies, they recommended revocation of its charter. Although expelled from the MCMS in July 1903, Decker operated GCM until 1908.

In 1904, Smith moved to Little Rock. He joined the Arkansas Medical School faculty as a professor of physiology and pediatrics. While serving as the secretary of the AMS from 1907 to 1910, he edited the Journal of the Arkansas Medical Society until 1909. From 1909 through 1911, he served as the first director of Arkansas’s branch of the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm.

While serving as president of the AMS in 1912, he argued for the establishment of a permanent state board of health, emphasizing the value of the “wide dissemination of sanitary…knowledge.” From 1913 to 1914, he served as the first state health officer for the newly created state health board.

In 1911, as originally proposed by Smith in 1908, the Arkansas Medical School merged with Little Rock’s College of Physicians and Surgeons Medical School and received recognition as a full branch of UA with attendant rights to state appropriations. Named dean of the medical school in 1912, Smith wanted to raise its standards to meet the highest level set by the American Medical Association’s Council on Medical Education (CME). Achieving that goal required changing the school’s admission requirements, funding, and clinical training facilities. Early on, he successfully revamped the curriculum, moved pre-clinical instruction to what is now the Old State House, and secured more full-time faculty.

The CME specified that top-level schools maintain control of a teaching hospital, which allowed students to see patients under faculty supervision. During the 1915 legislative session, Smith proposed constructing the David O. Dodd Hospital, which would have been a fifty-bed charity teaching hospital. Frustrated with the failure of the proposed hospital project and the school’s inadequate state funding, he resigned the deanship later that year. The university administration did not accept his resignation.

He resumed his pursuit of an improved school. Starting in 1918, he raised the admission requirements to meet the CME’s standards, stipulating that entering students must have completed two years of college-level pre-medical training. In 1922, he secured an agreement with several Little Rock hospitals, including Baptist and St. Vincent’s Infirmary, to allow the school to utilize their beds for clinical teaching.

In 1923, Senator W. H. Abington of Beebe (White County) introduced failed legislation that was designed to oust Smith, triggering the dean’s second resignation. In 1924, Smith returned to the position when no permanent replacement was found. In 1927, bitterly disappointed over another failed effort to secure funding for new medical school facilities, he submitted his final resignation.

Still committed to higher-quality medical education, Smith entered politics. In 1929, as a newly elected state representative, he successfully sponsored the Basic Sciences bill. The measure required applicants for all types of medical licenses to pass an exam covering the basic sciences. That same year, he unsuccessfully sponsored a bill that was designed to establish a charity hospital controlled by the medical school.

In 1931, the legislature passed Smith’s measure that was designed to establish a building fund for UA and the medical school through increased cigarette taxes. The deepening economic depression of the early 1930s, however, meant that planned construction projects were canceled. In 1934, New Deal funding enabled the construction of new medical school facilities.

On September 14, 1935, Smith died of an apparent heart attack at his home in Little Rock. He is buried in Roselawn Memorial Park.

His 1918 Craftsman-style home was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in May 2009. The house, located in Little Rock, features wood and stone, a side-gabled roof, and a large front porch.

For additional information:
“Arkansans to Pay Five New Taxes.” Arkansas Gazette, March 13, 1931, p. 1.

Baird, W. David. Medical Education in Arkansas, 1879–1978. Memphis: Memphis State University Press, 1979.

Clark, Richard B., Amanda Saar, and Alda Ellis. “Dr. Morgan Smith, Fifth Dean of the Arkansas Medical School.” Pulaski County Historical Review 58 (Winter 2010): 140–146.

“Dr. Morgan Smith Dies While Alone.” Arkansas Gazette, September 15, 1935, p. 1.

“Dr. Morgan Smith House.” National Register of Historic Places registration form. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas. http://www.arkansasheritage.com/arkansas-preservation/properties/national-registry (accessed May 24, 2022).

“General Hospital Proposed in Bill.” Arkansas Gazette, February 20, 1929, p. 3.

“Morgan Smith, Aged 67.” Journal of the Arkansas Medical Society 32 (October 1935): 89.

Silva, Rachel. “Sandwiching in History: Dr. Morgan Smith House.” Tour Lecture, Morgan Smith House, Little Rock, Arkansas, March 5, 2010. http://www.arkansasheritage.com/arkansas-preservation/properties/national-registry (accessed May 24, 2022).

Smith, Morgan. “Medical Activities and Their Relation to the Public Welfare.” Journal of the Arkansas Medical Society 9 (June 1912): 1–5.

———. “Medical Education in Arkansas.” Journal of the Arkansas Medical Society 5 (August 15, 1908): 83–85.

Taggart, Sam. The Public’s Health: A Narrative History of Health and Disease in Arkansas. Little Rock: Arkansas Times Limited, 2013.

“Union County Medical Society.” Journal of the Arkansas Medical Society 10 (May 1914): 317–318.

Melanie K. Welch
Mayflower, Arkansas

Last Updated: 06/14/2022