This entry has been corrected. See below and in comments.
The lecture title said it all: “The Early History of SIU School of Medicine: Not for the Naïve or Faint of Heart.”
According to Glen Davidson, Ph.D, two women – Sister Jane Like and Carol Bressan – were unsung heroes of the 1970s effort to create the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield.
Like (1913-2005), a Franciscan nun who was executive vice president of St. John’s Hospital, overcame opposition to the school from Springfield’s Roman Catholic bishop, William O’Connor (1903-83). Bressan (1941-2018), administrative assistant to SIU Dean Richard Moy, was Moy’s secret weapon against what Davidson called an attempted coup by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Davidson made the disclosures when he delivered the annual Everett F. Pearson Memorial Medical Lecture in September 2023. Davidson, who came to Springfield in August 1972 as the founding chair of SIU’s Department of Medical Humanities, called it “a privilege of old age” to reveal some of the behind-the-scenes events in the school’s founding.
SIU would not be in existence, he said, “except for some very courageous, generous and forgiving people often forced to make to make far-reaching decisions.” Like and Bressan were among those who “have not been given their due,” Davidson said.
Sister Jane Like, OSF
SIU was unique in that its founders, led by Moy, intended to use the facilities of Springfield’s existing hospitals, St. John’s and Memorial Medical Center, as integral parts of the medical school’s program.
“Negotiations with leaders of both hospitals could be tense, but they were usually civil,” Davidson said. St. John’s, however, had to overcome an extra obstacle.
“What the sisters faced was that the bishop of Springfield in 1969 did not welcome the establishment of a medical school here,” Davidson said. “To his way of thinking, the school was going to take over St. John’s and turn it into a place of compromise for Catholic values.”
The Hospital Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis had some leeway in making their decisions about SIU – the order originated in Germany, and its governance is generally independent of local Catholic dioceses (in 2023, the order operated 15 hospitals in Illinois and Wisconsin). However, Davidson noted in the lecture, the nuns were “expected to be respectful of the bishop.”
Like, however, had the full support of the Hospital Sisters’ governing council and her superiors.
“The sisters knew St. John’s could not continue with the status quo, medical school or not,” Davidson said, citing new laws and standards of practice that were evolving in the medical community in the 1970s.
St. John’s leadership, including Like, was interested in the creation of family practice as a new medical specialty, which some local general practitioners saw as a threat. The nuns’ plans also called for restructuring pastoral care, reeducation programs in the nursing and medical technician fields, and establishment of a hospice program associated with the hospital – all, Davidson said, “opposed by deeply conservative Catholics.”
“Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the right-wing organization Eagle Forum, called the sisters’ efforts, and I quote, ‘organizing death squads for a death house.’”
Sister Jane Like “called their bluff,” Davidson said, rejecting assertions that the changes would violate Catholic values.
Like won a key battle when the hospital was able to buy nearby parish-owned property for the hospice. With the hiring of two British-trained palliative care physicians, “St. John’s hospice became a model for hospital-associated hospices across the country,” he said.
“Had the sisters, and particularly Sister Jane, not had the courage to overcome the pressures, ostracisms, threats and just plain smearing to be partners in the establishment of this medical school, we would see a very different vista here today,” Davidson said in his speech.
“We are indeed in their debt.”
O’Connor stepped down as bishop of the Springfield diocese in 1975. “Succeeding bishops have been supporters of the school,” Davidson noted.
But Davidson had one more anecdote about the conflict between O’Connor and the Hospital Sisters.
At one point early in the process, representatives of the medical school, administrators of SIU-Carbondale, and the members of the Hospital Sisters council held a daylong meeting at the nuns’ motherhouse near Riverton, Davidson said.
At the end of the day, negotiators were elated at how they had succeeded in coming to an agreement, including how they would negotiate if they couldn’t come to an agreement (on further issues), Davidson said. “Then they had a bash, a banquet which can only be savored to describe – a German menu, libations from the sisters’ five-star wine cellar, camaraderie. They parted as partners.
About an hour later, E.coli 157 (food poisoning) struck with a vengeance. The Springfield delegation had the facilities at their own homes, as did the sisters. The Carbondale delegation? They were somewhere over Centralia, and there were no facilities aboard the university plane.
Several years later, the sister superior shared with me, somewhat sheepishly, that, still suffering from the effects of E.coli, she was annoyed by an early morning call from the bishop, who went on at length, complaining that he had not been present for the negotiations and, most of all, that he had not been invited to the banquet.
“I responded respectfully,” she said, “but I did then say, ‘I, too, am sorry that you weren’t at the banquet.’
“Do you suppose God will ever forgive me?”
SIU dean Richard Moy once said the first thing he did when named dean in 1969 “was to search for the most experienced, most trusted, most problem-solving administrative assistant in state government,” Davidson said. “And he could have added, ‘courageous.’ He hired Carol Bressan.”
Bressan was a secretary with the Illinois Department of Mental Health for 10 years before joining SIU as Moy’s administrative assistant. She later became as the school’s assistant provost.
Bressan’s role in fighting off a planned takeover of SIU Medical School by the University of Illinois began at a meeting of medical college administrators in the fall of 1972, Davidson said. At the time, SIU was in the process of seeking accreditation from the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, a crucial step in organizing the new medical school.
Davidson said he was reading a newspaper in a hotel lobby when he overheard a conversation between two other conference attendees. “I really wasn’t interested in listening to the whispered conversation … until, that is, I heard the words ‘were prepared to take over the medical school from SIU.’”
Davidson quickly gathered that the discussion involved plans to torpedo SIU’s fledgling medical school and concentrate downstate medical education at the U of I, “Illinois’ flagship university.” Davidson immediately told Moy, who instructed Bressan to discreetly determine who the two speakers were. The two men were still in the hotel lobby, and, according to Davidson:
Carol identified them as leaders of the U of I School of Medicine in Champaign-Urbana and their hospital in Chicago.
Fighting the coup attempt became the dean and Carol’s obsession for the next couple of months. It was through Carol’s taking considerable risk to her future – a single woman responsible for an adult, developmentally challenged brother – to engage in the kind of investigations that were necessary to get to the heart of the coup.
She discovered that … alumni of the University of Illinois had already drafted legislation to transfer all state-funded physician training to the University of Illinois, that existence of the proposed legislation, hopefully, would keep the LCME … from visiting SIU and, that, if that was not the case, to at least delay the admission of our first class.
Bressan’s intelligence work was crucial to Moy winning the fight to create the medical school, Davidson said.
Years later, Davidson said, an Illinois Board of Higher Education staff member confirmed to him that some U of I alumni on the board had been prepared to withhold funds from SIU medical school for that fiscal year. It might have been a fatal blow to the Springfield school.
Moy later told Davidson the attempted coup “was the most challenging and personally damaging experience of his career.”
Moy “paid a very heavy price for defense of establishing the school, and he succeeded because of the courage, skill and tenacity of Carol Bressan, who provided him with the knowledge he needed to block the coup,” Davidson said.
Video: The 2023 Emmet F. Pearson Memorial Medical Lecture, delivered by Glen Davidson, Ph.D, can be viewed here.
Correction: The conversation in which Richard Moy said the U of I “coup” attempt was the most challenging experience of his career took place at the wake for Dean Moy’s wife, Caryl (1932-2010). SangamonLink previously misunderstood Davidson’s reference. We apologize for the error. See Davidson’s comment below.
For more on Caryl Moy, see SangamonLink’s 2015 entry, Maternal Health Center/Planned Parenthood.
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