Never Bet on a Sure Thing

7 golden shovels leaning against a table with hard hats behind them. The words "Founders' Day" are on the image.
 By Christopher Austin

Many great things come from humble beginnings, and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) is no different. Starting on the third floor of a small building in downtown Bethesda, Maryland, above a drug store and bank branch, USU’s future was in doubt in Congress before it even opened its doors to the charter class.

Following the debate, Jerry Brazda, a health journalist, wagered that the University wouldn’t last long enough to graduate a single student. Dr. Donald L. Custis, the deputy chief medical director of the Veteran’s Administration at the time, took that bet.

Custis was a major supporter of USU. In 1980, when the first class of 29 students graduated, the former Navy surgeon general held Brazda to his word and called in the bet. Brazda wrote a check out made payable to USU for $100.

Forty-five years since the Founding of the university, Dr. Kenneth Franklin, an early graduate of USU reflected on the wager.

Men in civilian suits and military dress uniforms attend a groundbreaking ceremony. four men hold shovels, two are actively digging
President Ford and David Packard at the 1975 Groundbreaking Ceremony for USU's
permanent location. (Image credit: Library Archives)

“He lost that bet!” said Franklin, a retired Army colonel and Family Physician. “I remember the tension before getting accepted into the Class of '81. I got the landline phone call on a recorded message from the Dean of Admissions offering me admission the day the bill passed – a day I will never forget!”

The University was initially established by act of Congress in 1972, the Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship Act, after years of effort by then-Louisiana Congressman, F. Edward Hebert, for whom the medical school is now named. Hebert sought to found a service academy-like university to provide career military physicians for the Army, Navy, Air Force and U.S. Public Health Service.

Since that first class in 1980, USU has graduated more than 5,500 medical students. The medical school has also produced more than 1,500 scientists, public health officers, clinical psychologists, educators and health policy specialists through its graduate programs. In 1993, the University added the Daniel K. Inouye Graduate School of Nursing, now with 800 alumni, and in 2010, the Postgraduate Dental College joined the school. The PDC has more than 250 graduates on its rolls.  Last year, USU added the College of Allied Health Sciences, and its first graduate will receive his degree in October 2017.