As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Roger Senty was contemplating medical school when a classmate suggested he consider osteopathic medicine. Senty responded, “What is osteopathic medicine?”
Intrigued, he “got a bunch of catalogs” and decided to visit the osteopathic medical institution closest to Madison, the Des Moines Still College of Osteopathy and Surgery.
“It was the best choice I ever made,” he now concludes. He joined the Phi Sigma Gamma fraternity and moved into its house at 3205 Grand Avenue, commuting with fellow freshmen to classes on the college’s Sixth Avenue campus downtown.
He couldn’t have known then that, years later, he’d play a big role in moving the college to a campus across the street from the fraternity house.
When he wasn’t in class or studying, Senty worked one of three jobs at Hamilton Funeral Home, Lutheran Hospital and the emergency department of Methodist Hospital. There he met a student nurse, Carol Dorsey, who later became his wife, an attorney and a 1975 graduate of the college’s now-discontinued master of clinical psychology degree program.
Senty honed his clinical skills in Still’s College Hospital, located across the street from the downtown college building. He recalls, “In our junior year, for example, we would go over on the weekends doing history and physicals on newly admitted patients. We were also required to care for and deliver at the minimum two obstetrical patients before we graduated.”
Senty also recalls an announcement made by Still President Edwin Peters, Ph.D., at a May convocation his first year. “He said, ‘You freshmen, when you come back here in September, they will be breaking ground for the new addition to the hospital.’ We got back in September, and no ground had been broken.”
New presidents, new plans
After he graduated in 1958, Senty completed an internship at College Hospital and surgical residency at Doctors Hospital in Columbus, OH, before joining a practice in River Falls, WI. In 1964, he returned to his medical alma mater – by then renamed the College of Osteopathic Medicine and Surgery (COMS) – to join the surgery faculty.
“I really wanted to teach,” he says. “I come from a family of teachers and was motivated in that situation.”
The college had acquired a parcel of land at Fort Des Moines, a U.S. Army Reserve training center on Army Post Road; the site seemed perfect for the vision COMS President Merlyn McLaughlin, Ph.D., had for a new campus with a hospital and clinic.
The plan addressed two goals of the college: to expand training opportunities for students and to expand and upgrade its facilities.
“It was the best land you could possibly find,” Senty recalls. “It was flat, no trees, nothing. It was ideal.”
Less than ideal were COMS’ fundraising efforts. McLaughlin’s plan stalled. By the time Senty returned to campus in 1970 after a year-long fellowship in urological surgery at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, COMS had a new president, Thomas Vigorito, D.O., with a new plan for the Fort Des Moines site.
Despite the “cultural shock” of his return to Des Moines, Senty rose to the challenge of the college’s new era by agreeing to become its dean. He was optimistic about opportunities for its students.
“At the time, there was a big national concern there were not enough general family practice doctors; everyone was becoming a specialist,” he says. Federal legislation had been passed to encourage family practice, with increased funding for medical education. COMS was eligible for, and eventually received, special project grants in these areas.
“We were ideal for that. We had a number of clinics by then, including a free clinic that met every night, and we had students at all those clinics,” Senty says. “We had one problem downtown – we couldn’t grow. To get the federal grants, we had to expand our enrollment or go to a three-year curriculum. We did both.”
But first, a firestorm and a distraction
In 1970, COMS received a federal grant under the Health Professions Educational Assistance Act, which – according to a Dec. 4 article that year in The Des Moines Register – required the college raise an additional $8 million for construction of a $16 million facility at the Fort Des Moines site. A study committee appointed by the Health Planning Council of Central Iowa, citing in its report “a crisis in medical manpower,” called on the Iowa Legislature to match the federal grant.
“The money must be raised by Apr. 1, 1971, when it is estimated the cost of the facility may have ballooned to $19 million because of inflation,” the Register reported. “Unless money is appropriated by the [Iowa] Legislature before the Apr. 1 deadline, the [study committee] report declared, ‘there is small expectation that the matching funds can be raised in time to meet the deadline to prevent expiration of the grant.’”
However, the Health Planning Council study committee report also raised a controversial idea – that COMS become a public, state-controlled institution. That touched off a firestorm with the University of Iowa’s allopathic medical school. It also sparked discussions, including by COMS trustees, that COMS should begin granting M.D. degrees.
“That was like touching the third rail in the osteopathic profession,” Senty says. The American Osteopathic Association “went bonkers” and threatened to withdraw COMS’ accreditation.
Those discussions sputtered out, but efforts to raise funds for a new campus finally took off with the appointment in 1971 of J. Leonard Azneer, Ph.D., as COMS’ 12th president. President Azneer, who died Feb. 16, 2011, quickly became known as a forceful fundraiser.
“He was like a pistol coming out of the West. He was a dynamo,” Senty says. Concerned the Fort Des Moines campus plan would take too long to develop, Azneer launched a search for other, more move-in-ready locations. (The Fort Des Moines site was sold in the late 1990s.)
“We looked around for everything that was up for sale of any size in Des Moines that could possibly be converted into a medical institution,” Senty recalls. “That included insurance companies, that included Meredith [Corp.], that included Dowling High School.”
Fate intervened during a casual conversation between Senty and his dentist, Dr. Donald O’Meara, then president of the board of St. Joseph’s Academy, a Catholic girls’ school on Grand Avenue. The academy wanted to relocate as part of its merger with Dowling High School, so O’Meara suggested to Senty that Azneer give him a call. The outcome is history: President Azneer charged Dean Senty with transforming the school into a medical college.
“It was a tremendous challenge,” Senty says. He worked with COMS faculty on their facilities needs and with a construction consultant on meeting them. The move included converting St. Joseph’s preschool into a clinic and its chapel into a large classroom. It entailed creating basic science, anatomy and surgical laboratories, an animal facility and a cadaver handling system, among many other components – all up to medical school standards, and all in about six months.
Roger Senty led changes at COMS in the early 1970s to help address the nation’s physician shortage. He says today, DMU is “once again ideally situated for this challenge…I only wish I was 20 to 30 years younger.”
“It was exhausting, but we were excited,” Senty says.
At the same time, COMS revised its curriculum from a four-year to a three-year program. Senty recalls that at one point, the college had a four-year curriculum, an experimental three-year curriculum and a transitional curriculum of between three and four years. While the three-year curricula at COMS and other medical schools were eventually returned to four – “the pressures that were put on students were awful” – Senty notes they did inspire innovation.
“Those changes led to the systems approach students have today,” he says. “It is of interest to note that the three-year curriculum is now being revisited at some schools, but for only a special group, not the whole class. Perhaps this is the mistake we made.”
A modest man of major impact
That COMS successfully relocated and revamped its programs while avoiding mass desertion by its faculty says a lot about Senty, although you won’t hear him brag about it. “I had good people working with me,” he says simply.
The Des Moines University community views it differently. Senty was among the nominees for the 2013 College of Osteopathic Medicine Alumnus of the Year. At a reception for state legislators and community leaders on campus in January, DMU President Angela Walker Franklin, Ph.D., recognized his significant impact on the institution.
“Thanks to his vision, leadership, hard work and great collaborative spirit, the College of Osteopathic Medicine helped meet the medical needs of our nation while establishing itself on this beautiful campus,” she told reception guests. “Dr. Senty played a pivotal role in transforming what is now Des Moines University into one of the country’s most stellar medical institutions.”
Senty stepped down as COMS dean in 1974, but he was no less busy. He continued his teaching career through the mid-1990s at the college and now-gone Des Moines General Hospital, where he also served as chief of staff and acting medical director for a time. In addition, in 1978 he and David McClain, D.O., COMS professor of clinical medicine and orthopedics, co-founded Associated Medical Clinic Ltd., a cooperative of 16 specialists in Des Moines. Senty continued in private practice until retiring in 1994.
He reflects today on three major changes during the past century that have had a “profound effect” on medical education.
“The Carnegie Foundation established a study of medical education in 1910 headed by Dr. Abraham Flexner, which established the foundations of modern medical education,” he says. “In the 1960s, family practice residencies were developed to expand family practice. In 2010, the passage of the Affordable Care Act goes toward universal care by adding 30 million to 50 million more people to the system.
“This will require more family practitioners, including in pediatrics, internal medicine and general surgery,” he adds. “It also has a disease orientation rather than being procedure-oriented, with an emphasis on preventative care.”
Senty says DMU is “once again ideally situated for this challenge” under President Franklin’s leadership. “The medical schools will be the leaders in this change,” he notes. “I only wish I was 20 to 30 years younger.”
Still, Senty has every reason to be proud of his own profound impact on medical education and his role in literally changing the face of Des Moines University.
“Curriculum development and moving the college were the most exciting things I did in my years as dean,” he notes. “I felt like I made a contribution.”