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First. Best. Only.

For 50 years, these three words have described UC San Diego Health’s unprecedented, unsurpassed commitment to patient care

By Scott LaFee   |   September 06, 2016

On July 1, 1966, the University of California Board of Regents assumed a $350,000 annual lease for County Hospital — a three-year-old, 11-story structure rising just north of downtown San Diego, overlooking the still semi-bucolic pasturelands of Mission Valley.

university hospital

It was renamed University Hospital and decreed the primary clinical teaching facility of the even newer UC San Diego School of Medicine, which the Regents had approved four years earlier but which wouldn’t actually hold classes for another two or graduate its first doctors until 1972.

Fifty years ago, the future of local health care was mostly inspired imagination — for the city, for the new university and for what would ultimately become UC San Diego Health, the region’s only academic medical system and, by most measures, one of the best in the world.

University Hospital, which the Regents purchased outright in 1981, is now UC San Diego Medical Center in Hillcrest, part of a larger system that currently includes Shiley Eye Institute, Moores Cancer Center, Sulpizio Cardiovascular Center, numerous community clinics and, this year, the Jacobs Medical Center —a gleaming new edifice of silver-and-glass towering above the university’s east campus in La Jolla.

The distance from UC San Diego Medical Center to Jacobs Medical Center is perhaps a dozen miles, but between them stretches a timeline of extraordinary achievement marking UC San Diego Health as not just a pre-eminent center for medical research and teaching, but the place to go for care that is first, best and only.

Some highlights:


  • 1968 – First organ transplant in region – a kidney – successfully performed on 32-year-old man; 1,000th would be marked in 1992
  • 1969 – First pulmonary thromboendarterectomy (PTE) in world – the complex surgery to remove rare but deadly blood clots from lung arteries was developed by Kenneth Moser and Stuart Jamieson
  • 1973 – UC San Diego physicians use one of only four echocardiograph machines in world to create pioneering sonograms of human heart
  • 1979 – Nurse Midwife Program first in state to be fully accredited
  • 1980 – Frank and Cedric Garland publish first study to link vitamin D deficiency to heightened cancer risk
  • 1984 – Daniel Steinberg leads first large, randomized, double-blind study showing that drug therapy can significantly decrease heart disease by lowering cholesterol levels, fundamentally changing how doctors treat condition
  • 1984 – National Institute of Aging designates Shiley-Marcos Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, under director Leon Thal, one of first five such centers in nation
  • 1989 – Douglas Richman’s lab is among first to recognize HIV drug resistance
  • 1990 – Smoking research at Moores Cancer Center leads to California Smokers Helpline, becoming model for other states and nations
  • 1991 – Region’s first double lung transplant – and only 63rd in world – performed by surgical team headed by Jamieson, who helped develop procedure
  • 1991 – Thal establishes Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study, an unprecedented multi-institutional collaboration to test new AD drugs
  • 1993 – Thal reports memories of patients with Alzheimer’s disease can be enhanced by inhibiting brain chemical called AChE, leading to development of earliest AD treatment drugs
  • 1997 – Gary Firestein and colleagues discover p53 gene – already notorious in cancer – plays role in promoting rheumatoid arthritis too
  • 2001 – First-in-nation experimental gene therapy surgery to treat Alzheimer’s disease: Mark Tuszynski and team implant genetically modified tissue into brain of 60-year-old woman to slow or prevent neurodegeneration
  • 2001 – Hal Hoffman and colleagues discover mutated gene causing familial cold autoinflammatory syndrome, a rare hereditary disease; leads to development of effective treatment
  • 2003 – Eric Courchesne publishes first evidence identifying neurobiological early warning signs of autism during first year of life
  • 2004 – Michael Karin publishes first evidence of molecular link between inflammation and cancer
  • 2004 – First certified comprehensive stroke center in San Diego
  • 2008 – UC San Diego physicians are first in nation to remove an appendix and gallbladder through mouth and an appendix through vagina in “scarless surgeries”
  • 2010 – Nation’s first stomach reduction surgery via mouth
  • 2010 – Alysson Muotri and colleagues create first functional human cellular model of autism spectrum disorder
  • 2011 – Sulpizio Cardiovascular Center, the region’s first comprehensive cardiovascular center, opens; first implant on West Coast of only FDA-approved total artificial heart
  • 2012 – Larry Goldstein and colleagues create first stem cell-derived, in vitro cellular model of Alzheimer’s disease
  • 2013 – Emergency department physicians debut telemedicine program to treat distant patients remotely using cameras and microphones; first in state
  • 2014 – Three first-in-human stem cell trials launched to treat diabetes, spinal cord injury and leukemia


  • 1972 – Theodore Friedman and colleagues define concept of gene therapy as therapy for genetic diseases
  • 1982 – Owens Clinic opens; becomes internationally renowned model for treatment of HIV and AIDS patients
  • 1984 – UC San Diego and five other hospitals form San Diego County Trauma System, now a world model; UC San Diego Health only Level 1 trauma center in region
  • 1986 – UC San Diego designated one of eight national centers for research and treatment of HIV/AIDS
  • 1998 – 1,000th PTE performed; 3,000th in 2013 – more than any other institution in world and lowest known postoperative mortality rate, under 1 percent in recent years
  • 2001 – UC San Diego and Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego unify pediatric patient care, research, education and community service programs
  • 2005 – Center for Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence founded, one of only seven in nation
  • 2008 – Roger Tsien shares Nobel Prize in chemistry for work with glowing proteins, now being used as surgical aid, to highlight malignancies and many other purposes
  • 2008 – Catriona Jamieson and colleagues advance research for rare blood disorder from bench to bedside in just one year, result of pioneering industry-academia partnership
  • 2009 – Jacopo Annese and Brain Observatory slice and digitally preserve brain of Patient HM, world’s most famous amnesiac
  • 2016 – Microbiome and Microbial Sciences Initiative launched, identified as leader in national White House-led effort


  • 1973 – Only regional burn center opens
  • 1978 - Cancer center founded; only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center (2001) in region
  • 1997 – Student-run free medical clinic launched; dental services open two years later
  • 1998 – Bone Marrow Transplant program designated as only national marrow donor-approved transplant center in San Diego
  • 2002 – Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences established; only public school of pharmacy in Southern California
  • 2012 – Only medical center in region with both a regional Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and a labor and delivery service in the same facility; only facility on West Coast offering natural birth experience within hospital setting
  • 2014—UC San Diego identified as primary ebola treatment center in region

For a more comprehensive and illustrated accounting of UC San Diego Health’s half-century of community care, click here.