Virginia Commonwealth University
By: David S. Wilkinson, MD, PhD
June 2019

The Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine originated in 1838 as the Richmond Department of Medicine of the Medical Department of Hampden-Sydney College.  The school separated from Hampden-Sydney in 1854 and became an independent medical school, named Medical College of Virginia (MCV). In 1860, the Commonwealth of Virginia took ownership of MCV, which continued to operate as a free-standing medical school until its merger with another state institution, the Richmond Professional Institute, in 1968 to form the Virginia Commonwealth University.  The Department of Pathology is one of the oldest academic departments within the School of Medicine, having appointed Edwin S. Gaillard its first Professor of Pathology in 1867. Just one year later, Gaillard became dean of the Kentucky Medical School in Louisville.  The 17th and current chair is Charles V. Clevenger, MD, PhD, who was appointed July 1, 2013.  The table lists the previous 16 chairs and their dates of service.

The longest serving chair was Frank L. Apperly, whose tenure lasted from 1932 until 1958.  Apperly was a native Australian who received his medical degree from Oxford, and was a student of Sir William Osler.  The Apperly era was a critical period in the development of the department, as pathology emerged from its primary function in medical education to include a growing role in the diagnosis and management of human disease by laboratory methods, such as surgical pathology, cytopathology and the clinical laboratory.  A key recruit came to MCV in 1950, when the legendary Saul Kay joined the Department of Surgery as a surgical and cytopathologist.  Kay trained at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center under Arthur Purdy Stout, who was a surgeon devoted to surgical pathology.  At that time it was commonplace for the surgical pathology laboratory to be housed in the Department of Surgery.  Kay was also an accomplished violinist, and a founding member of the Richmond Symphony.

It was not until 1960, under the leadership of then chair George Margolis, that all aspects of pathology were joined together into a single department, with five divisions, including Surgical Pathology with Dr. Kay as its Chair.  Dr. Margolis brought a strong emphasis on research to the department, and brought significant federal funding at a time when MCV was trying to strengthen its research portfolio, often with significant resistance from the local community.  Fairfield Goodale, who went on to become Dean at the Medical College of Georgia and Executive Dean at Wake Forest School of Medicine, was chair from 1963 until 1976.  Among others, in 1966 he recruited Jack Frable, who pioneered the clinical application of fine needle aspiration cytology in the US and trained dozens of fellows in cytopathology, including the current chair of the Division of Anatomic Pathology at VCU, Celeste Powers.  Frable and Powers have both received the George Papanicolaou Award from the American Society of Cytology and served as president of that organization.  

George Vennart served as chair from 1978 until 1991.  During his tenure a Division of Experimental Pathology (later named Cellular and Molecular Pathogenesis) was established, with Al Sirica, who still holds the position, as Chair.  Dr. Sirica has had a remarkable three decade history of uninterrupted NIH grant support and has made pioneering discoveries about the pathogenesis of biliary cancer.  David Wilkinson became chair in 1993.  He reorganized the department into its current divisional structure, which included divisions of Anatomic Pathology, Clinical Pathology, Cellular and Molecular Pathogenesis and a new Division of Molecular Diagnostics, which focused on nucleic acid based clinical testing and translational research.  The VCU Department of Pathology was one of the first in the US to achieve ACGME accreditation for its Molecular Genetic Pathology fellowship.

Perhaps the most famous pathologist with a connection to VCU is Baruj Benacerraf, who received his MD degree from MCV and went on to become Chair of Pathology at Harvard.  He received the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1980 for “discovery of the major histocompatibility complex genes which encode cell surface protein molecules important for the immune system's distinction between self and non-self."

Dr. Charles V. Clevenger became Chair on July 1, 2013.  He was formerly Professor of Pathology at Northwestern, where he maintained a strong funded research program in breast cancer.  He leads a strong department, which is well known for its teaching excellence and clinical effectiveness.  The department boasts the authors and co-authors of major text books in pathology and laboratory medicine.  The faculty hold and have held major leadership and editorial positions in professional organizations such as the American Association of Blood Banks, American Association for Clinical Chemistry, American Society for Microbiology, American Society for Clinical Pathology, American Society of Cytology, American Society for Investigative Pathology, the College of American Pathologists, and the United States and Canadian Academy of Pathology.

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