Coggins Remembered for Service to the College

Wilmer J. Coggins, MD, former dean of the College is being remembered for his service to the College and his dedication to improving access to health care for the medically underserved, particularly those living in rural areas.

Coggins, who served as dean from 1980 to 1991, died Sept. 9 at Hospice of West Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He was 87. A reception and celebration of his life will be held later this month at his home in Tuscaloosa. 

In an interview earlier this year, Coggins said he was drawn to the College because of its commitment to providing health care to traditionally underserved rural areas. During his tenure as dean, he helped build a strong clinical experience for medical students and a large Family Medicine Residency. Student enrollment in the College increased significantly, and graduates chose residencies in primary care specialities at rates above the national average and in Family Medicine at twice the national average. Many are now practicing in small towns and rural communities in Alabama.

“One of the most appealing aspects of the College and factors that influenced my decision to join the College were the enthusiasm of the medical students and the quality of the family practice residents,” Coggins said.

Coggins has said that while practicing in his hometown of Madison, Fla., “I found general practice in a rural area to be intellectually challenging and deeply rewarding.” He noted the impact one could have on a community in this capacity and was gratified by it. 

The College experienced significant growth while Coggins was dean. The Family Practice Center, now University Medical Center, was expanded as more than 7,000 square feet of clinical space was added and a new Obstetricts-Gynecology suite with six exam rooms and facilities for gynecological surgical procedures opened. A significant health care need in rural Alabama at the time was obstetrical care, and one of the nation’s first Ob/Gyn fellowships for Family Medicine physicians was developed by the College and continues today.

In 1985, the Family Practice Center became the nation’s first university-sponsored, non-hospital-based outpatient clinic to be accredited by the Joint Commission of Hospitals and Ambulatory Health Services, which is considered a benchmark of quality. By 1987, the clinic had seen more than 64,000 patients and served as an important clinical training site for the College’s medical students and resident.

Funding for the College from research grants was significant under Coggins’s leadership. Six projects were funded in 1985 for a total of $760,000. The College also received funding from the Ford Foundation for a study of rural Alabama pregnancies and infant health, and from the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation for the BioPrep program. At the time, the Macy grant was the largest private foundation grant ever received by The University of Alabama.

BioPrep was a joint effort of the College and area high schools and sought to increase the number of students from rural and disadvantaged communities who might choose health care careers and then return to these areas to practice. The program helped increase student competency in math and science, expanded students’ knowledge of the health care system and increased their appreciation for the rural and underserved communities where they were raised.

Coggins bolstered relations with DCH Health System, and he strengthened the College financially. Believing that a primary function of medical programs is to serve communities, the College played an important role when AIDS made its appearance at the University in 1987. Coggins co-chaired a committee that studied AIDS implications on the University’s campus and recommended a policy for the University. Educational seminars by Coggins and other College faculty helped educate University faculty, staff and students.

After retiring as dean in 1991, Coggins won outside funding to develop a modified curriculum for medical students in Problem Based Learning and the use of the Objective Structured Clinical Evaluation. These techniques are now in use at the main campus of The University of Alabama School of Medicine in Birmingham, as well as at the Tuscaloosa and Huntsville branch campuses.

In recent years, Coggins founded and directed The Coggins Group, an organization devoted to presentations and discussions of contemporary matters of political and social concern. He also was co-author and editor of A Special Kind of Doctor, the first history of the College, published in 2005.

Coggins was born Feb. 20, 1925, in Madison Fla. After graduating from Georgia Military Academy in College Park, he entered Duke University as a pre-medical student in 1942. His undergraduate education was interrupted by military service in World War II. He served as a Second Lieutenant and was the commander of a Medical Collecting Company in Hakodate, near Sapporo, Japan, before joining the 11th Airborne Division in Sapporo. After a year of active service, during which time he was trained as a paratrooper and elevated to the rank of First Lieutenant, he was released from active duty and returned to Duke University to enter medical school.

He received his medical degree in 1951 and he and his wife completed internships at Georgetown University Medical Center. Coggins’s residency in Internal Medicine was interrupted when he contracted tuberculosis and required 18 months of rest. He and his wife returned to Florida to begin a private practice, first in Boca Grande and then in his home town of Madison. The Coggins family left Madison in 1960 and moved to Gainesville, where Coggins completed his residency in Internal Medicine in 1962.

Coggins joined the faculty of the University of Florida College of Medicine and became director of the General Medical Clinic and later director of the University Health Service, which provided inpatient and outpatient care to a rapidly growing student population.

After a sabbatical year at the University of Maryland, Coggins returned to the University of Florida to join a medical school project in rural health care that shifted the location of outpatient training for medical students to a network of rural clinics in a three-county area where no other acute care facilities were available.

Coggins was active in the Florida Medical Association, chairing committees on student health, rural health and public health. He was president of the American College Health As

sociation from 1972-1973 and received the organization’s Ruth Boynton Award for distinguished service. He has been a consultant to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration. He was also designated a Laureate of the American College of Physicians, Alabama Chapter, and served as president of the College’s Lister Hill Society.

Coggins will also be remembered for his love of the outdoors, especially his passi

on for natural history, boating, bird watching and photography.

He is survivied by his wife of 63 years, Deborah Reed Coggins, MD, two daughters, three sons and eight grandchildren.