History of the Pylons

For over 50 years, the pylons that grace the entrance of the Health Sciences Center in Morgantown have served as a most unique symbol of medical education at West Virginia University. The word "pylon" comes from a Greek root meaning "gateway", and through the pylons have passed generations of students dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and the quest to help others.

Created by Milton Horn, the pylons were commissioned in 1954 and completed two years later. They stand as a tribute to the developing of the "healing arts", celebrating accomplishments in medicine, nursing, pharmacy, and dentistry through the ages. The plaster studies were donated by the sculptor to the Charleston Campus in 1982 in memory of his late wife, Estelle, who played a great role in the research and production of the statues.

The pylons were encased in the Health Sciences Learning Center in 2007. When built, the new Learning Center on the Morgantown Health Sciences Campus opened in early 2007 and includes a state-of-the-art, 200-seat auditorium, two 150-seat classrooms, study rooms, convertible classrooms and 63 public computer stations. The historical Pylons are the focal point of the enclosed “commons area.”  

Mr. Horn has stated, "At times, one panel symbolizes events that occurred a century or more apart, yet there is unity in each panel and in all of them together." He concludes that the images are meant to create for the students of West Virginia University awareness of our "wholeness" with the medical community of the past, present and future.

The Panels

The panel shown depicts Hippocrates (460-370 BC). He was the original patient advocate, admonishing "primum non nocere," (First, Do No Harm).

Below, Aristotle compares the bone structures of different animals. He first proposed the idea of species-fixed sets in nature that would reproduce true lineage.

For five hundred years, the work of Benvenutus Grassus stood as the sentinel work on ophthalmology (circa 12th Century). He studied the structures of the eye as well as its diseases. Here, he examines the eye of a patient.

The lower panel depicts a deaconess in a medieval hospital caring for a patient. For centuries nursing was a charitable venture, carried out primarily by women on means, but without any training. Today, nurses train in basic and clinical sciences.

William Harvey (1578-1657) studied blood and its movement through the vessels and heart. Without the aid of the microscope, he postulated the existence of capillaries – later proven by Malpighi.

Steven Hales (1677-1761) was a brilliant British plant physiologist who was also interested in pressure exerted by blood. He measured blood pressure by cannulating the veins of various animals with a graduated glass tube.

Andrea Vesalius (1514-1564) wrote the first anatomy book based on human dissection. The illustrated text refuted much of Galen's teachings which were based on dissection of animals.

The top of this panel comes from Exodus 30:25: "And thou shalt make it an oil of holy anointment. An ointment compound after the art of the apothecary…" The mortar and pestle to this day evoke the pharmacist.

The lower portion, too, comes from the Bible, Leviticus taught the laws of sanitation, personal hygiene, and food preparation.

Pierre Fauchard (1678-1761) was no more barber who pulled teeth as a sideline. He founded modern dentistry, concerning himself with the scientific study of oral diseases as well as preventive care.

Below, we see another Frenchman, Louis Pasteur (1822-1895). He inoculates the brain of a dog with rabies virus. Pasteur successfully developed an attenuated strain that he used in 1885 to treat a young boy badly bitten by a rabid dog. The child survived.

War has always afforded physicians the opportunity to study human anatomy and physiology. William Beaumont (1785-1853) was stationed at Fort Mackinack, MI in 1822. His patient, Alexis St. Martin, suffered a gunshot wound that healed into a gastrocutaneous fistula. Beaumont supported St. Martin and his family for the next eight years in exchange for studying the digestive process through his patient's wound.

The lower portion of the panel commemorates Wilhelm Roentgen's discovery of x-rays in 1825. Roentgen received the first Nobel Prize in Physics for his work.

Ephraim McDowell (1771-1830) staged a miraculous surgery in 1809 when he diagnosed and removed a large ovarian tumor from a Mrs. Jane Todd Crawford, without the benefit of anesthesia or antiseptic. The patient lived at least another ten years according to records.

Information courtesy of the West Virginia University School of Medicine Pylon Publication (1994 and 1997 editions).