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The History of University of Rochester and the Medical Center

Rochester, New York was founded shortly after the American Revolution as “Rochesterville.”  Its fertile land on the banks of the Genesee River (with its several beautiful waterfalls) made it attractive for agriculture and development of water power to run mills.  In fact, Rochester’s lucrative wheat-processing industry led to quick population growth, becoming one of the nation’s first “boom towns” and earning it the nickname the “Flour City.”  By the middle of the 19th century, the flour business moved west so Rochester pivoted to expanding its nurseries and orchards, thereby becoming a different “Flower City,” a nickname still used today.  Every year, thousands flock to Highland Park for our annual Lilac Festival to relish in the beauty of North America’s largest collection of lilacs and enjoy live music and local food and drink.  The most popular pastime in Rochester is gardening, and farmers’ markets throughout the region burst with fresh fruits and vegetables all summer long.  The bountiful orchards of the Finger Lakes produce a huge variety of apples, and the vineyards give rise to award-winning wines.  The area delights in its four seasons- picturesque snow-capped winters, flower-drenched springs, summer’s sunny shores on Lake Ontario, and of course the region’s claim to fame, the brilliant foliage of autumn!

Rochester and the Western New York region played important roles in our nation’s history.  After escaping slavery, Frederick Douglass founded the North Star, an abolitionist newspaper and influential contribution to the anti-slavery movement.  After renovation in 2021, the city’s airport was renamed the Frederick Douglass Greater Rochester International Airport in his honor.  Women’s suffragist Susan B. Anthony was living and working in Rochester when arrested for voting in the 1872 Presidential Election; her former home is now a National Historic Landmark and museum.  Both Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony are buried in Mount Hope cemetery in Rochester, across the street from Strong Memorial Hospital.

In the 1800s, George Eastman arrived on the scene and founded the Eastman Kodak company, revolutionizing the photography industry and making it accessible to the masses with his slogan, “you press the button, we do the rest.”  He was a generous entrepreneur and philanthropist, and his friendship with Dr. Benjamin Rush Rhees led to a significant endowment for the creation of the modern-day University of Rochester in 1850.  In the 1920s Abraham Flexner, in his mission to improve the state of medical education in the United States, approached Dr. Rhees to establish a medical and dental school at University of Rochester under his new model.  The University of Rochester Medical Center was founded in 1921, the same year that George Eastman’s philanthropic efforts gave rise to the now world-famous music school that bears his name.  The institution welcomed its first medical students in 1925, graduating in 1929.  University of Rochester alumni and faculty have been awarded thirteen Nobel prizes in several categories including physiology/medicine, and the Medical Center has been home to numerous ground-breaking medical discoveries.

The UR Department of Neurology

The Department of Neurology at the University of Rochester officially started on July 1, 1966 when Dr. Robert Joynt was recruited from the University of Iowa to become its first Chair. From those humble beginnings, Dr. Joynt and six faculty and trainees began a journey of professional and personal growth that would impact thousands of physicians and millions of patients. While one can attempt to quantify such accomplishments, it is ultimately a human story of relationships and how a rare combination of Dr. Joynt’s great intellect, common sense, humility, wit, and charm can move the neurological needle on a global scale. 

Dr. Joynt was known for saying “Hire people smarter than you – and then get out of their way.”  Brilliant himself, Dr. Joynt did just that. During the late 1960s and 1970s, Dr. Joynt hired and surrounded himself with a core group of individuals, many of whom stayed and built the Department to what it is today- some still walk our halls to this day!  While Dr. Joynt created a comfortable and humanistic work environment to learn and teach, care for patients and pursue scholarship, our Department has sustained a legacy of leadership, inspiration and loyalty that continues today.  His quote, “You can’t always be right, but you can always be kind” remains the guiding principle of our Department.

A proud UR Neurology residency alumnus, Dr. Robert Holloway became Chair in 2012, inspiring our most successful period of growth to date. Since then, the faculty size has almost doubled from 55 to 104, with the percentage of women faculty increasing from 25% to 44% during that time.  We have established four new clinical divisions in the past ten years, including Headache, Sleep and Neurocritical Care.  In 2020, the department established one of the few dedicated Neuropalliative divisions in the country, to advance the biopsychosocial model of care that was founded here at University of Rochester.

Our department is entering a golden age of Neurology, on the cusp of astonishing innovations.  We have expanding research programs advancing treatments while simultaneously defining models of care to minimize suffering.  We remain international leaders in experimental therapeutics and gene-targeted therapies with marquis programs in global neurology, palliative care, and neurorecovery. 

The Neurology Residency Program at URMC

The UR Neurology residency program began shortly after the arrival of Robert Joynt as chair of the department in 1967 with our first two residents!  The program steadily expanded to four adult neurology positions and one child neurology position per year.  Ralph J√≥zefowicz became adult neurology program director in 1996, ably assisted by Ms. Clara Vigelette, who has served as our residency program coordinator since the mid-1980s!  In 2006 the residency program became a four-year categorical program, fully integrating the Medicine internship year into the curriculum.  In 2009, the residency program was expanded to 6 positions per year, and in 2018 the program was further expanded to the current 8 adult neurology positions per year.  After more than 25 years at the helm, in late 2021 Dr. J√≥zefowciz retired in his role as Program Director.  Following a national search, Dr. Colleen Tomcik was appointed as his successor, building on her experience serving as Associate Program Director at both University of Rochester and University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.

At present, the UR adult neurology residency program is regarded as one of the most attractive programs nationally, and consistently recruits highly competitive candidates from all over the world.  The residency program has always maintained full accreditation by the Residency Review Committee in Neurology and boasts a first time pass rate for the ABPN board examination well above the national average.  Our neurology residents consistently receive a disproportionate number of medical student teaching and service awards in recognition of their impeccable teaching and role modeling, including the Arnold Gold Foundation Humanism in Medicine Award, election to AOA, and the annual medical student teaching award.

Our residency graduates all pursue fellowship training, with many electing to stay in Rochester given the world-class training and supportive atmosphere of our programs.  Those who choose to complete fellowship elsewhere match into other impressive programs, including University of Pennsylvania, Mayo Clinic, Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Case Western, University of Michigan, UCLA- and Dartmouth University.  The majority of our residency graduates stay in academia and many have gone on to become department chairs, division chairs, residency program and clerkship directors, and national/international leaders in the field.

Our Department’s continued success depends on people, partnership, and a shared vision to provide the best care for our patients, to discover causes and new treatments for neurological disease, to train the brightest new talent, to improve the brain health of the community we serve, and to support our amazing faculty, trainees, and staff.

We reflect fondly upon where we’ve been, stand in awe of how we’ve grown, and look forward to an “ever better” future for our UR Neuro family!


UR Medicine Neurology: 50 Years of Neurology History (prepared for the 50th Anniversary of the Department in 2016)