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James Anthony Dibrell Jr. was a founder of the University of Arkansas Medical Department (now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences—UAMS) and served as its second dean. As a practicing physician and dean of the medical school, Dibrell was responsible for many of the developments in medical education in Arkansas at the turn of the century.
James Dibrell was born on August 20, 1846, near Van Buren (Crawford County). His father, James A. Dibrell Sr., was a prominent pioneer physician of the Van Buren area well known in state medical circles. The Civil War had taken a toll on the family finances, so Dibrell began his medical education by “reading” medicine with his father in the evenings and working as an accountant during the day. He took a course of medical lectures at the Medical College of St. Louis in 1867–68 and a course at the University of Pennsylvania, from which he received his degree in 1870. His father had received his degree there in 1839.
Upon graduation, Dibrell moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County) and immediately began his practice. Like his father, Dibrell soon became involved in the political scene of the medical community. During his lifetime, he served as president of the city, county, and state medical societies and was a vice president of the American Medical Association.
The 1870s had brought an interest in the establishment of a medical school in the state, but several issues had hampered formation of the school. Disagreements over memberships based on educational background and practice philosophy had led to the formation of multiple local and state medical societies. By summer 1879, with the issues resolved and unity within the medical community, Dibrell and seven other Little Rock physicians organized the Medical Department of Arkansas Industrial University. Dibrell became the institution’s professor of anatomy, a position he held under several titles until his death in 1904.
With the resignation of the first faculty president, Philo Oliver Hooper, in 1886, Dibrell became president of the faculty and then dean, a position he held for the rest of his life. Many weaknesses, including lack of laboratory facilities, certainly hampered the growth of the institution during his term, but there were major accomplishments as well. The name became the University of Arkansas, Medical Department. A new building was constructed at 2nd and Sherman Streets to house the Medical Department. With a bequest from Dr. Isaac Folsom, a clinic was established where the students could improve their clinical skills. The Logan H. Roots Memorial Hospital was constructed in 1896, providing more clinical experience for the students. By this time, the enrollment now exceeded 200 students, and fifteen to twenty new physicians graduated each year.
Dibrell married Lallie Reardon of Little Rock in 1878. They had two sons, John R. and James L. Dibrell, both of whom followed their father into medicine and onto the faculty of the medical school. The Dibrell home, at 1400 Spring Street became known as “the gadget house” because of Dibrell’s love of modern devices such as doorbells, burglar alarms, and central heating. The home, today still a private residence, remains as a cornerstone of Little Rock’s Quapaw Quarter Historical District.
Dibrell died of pneumonia at his home in Little Rock on November 11, 1904. He is buried in Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock.
For additional information:Baird, W. David. Medical Education in Arkansas 1879–1978. Memphis: Memphis State University Press, 1979.
Dibrell Family Papers. Archives Collections. University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Library, Little Rock, Arkansas.
James A. Dibrell. Biography File. Archives Collections. University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Library, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Max L. Baker and Fred O. HenkerUniversity of Arkansas for Medical Sciences
Last Updated 10/7/2009
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