Lawrence’s hospital celebrates its centennial

photo by: Chris Conde

LMH Health is pictured in a file photo from October 2018.

One hundred years ago, Lawrence Memorial Hospital officially opened its doors. While that’s a milestone worthy of celebration for any organization, it’s the story of the founding of the hospital that deserves special recognition.

In a 1940s pamphlet called “An Idea That Grew,” Robert C. Rankin, the first chairman of Lawrence Memorial Hospital’s Board of Trustees, wrote that the idea for the hospital came after Dr. Ralph E. Barnes was called to attend to an elderly man who had fallen in a seizure on a sidewalk near the Eldridge Hotel. He tried to take the man to a hospital, but at the time, Lawrence was served only by small private hospitals that were owned by the physicians who operated them in connection with their practices.

One of the hospitals was said to have a charity bed, but when Barnes called, it was occupied. The others said they had nothing available. Barnes tried to find someone who might know the man and called on several homes, but no one was willing to take the man into their house, even for a night. While Barnes was trying to find a bed, the man died.

Rankin wrote that Barnes called attention to the fact that there was no publicly owned hospital in Lawrence where people who couldn’t afford to pay a doctor could be taken for treatment and care. He asked Rankin to “help him promote something of the kind,” and Rankin recalled his answer in his pamphlet: “My reply was that I was interested and would be glad to help in any way I could.”

Eventually Barnes went to the Social Service League, which Rankin described as “a band of good women with a few men” who tried to help the very poor. In 1910, the League operated a charity health clinic in a portion of the old county jail, which stood at 546 Vermont St., and in 1914 they agreed to install a bed in a room that was formerly a cell house. The Metropolitan Insurance visiting nurse, who made her headquarters there and cooperated with the League in their social work, offered to help care for the patients.

Demand for the service increased rapidly. It grew to include five beds, all in one room. But it was not enough. After the end of World War I in 1918, the Douglas County Chapter of the American Red Cross found itself in possession of “a large sum of money belonging to the local chapter and without an objective for its use,” according to Rankin, who was the chapter’s president. The city needed a hospital, but Red Cross division officials said the money could not be used for any hospital purposes. Instead, the local Red Cross Board of Directors organized the Lawrence Public Health Nursing Association, set up a health department and endowed it with more funds than it could possibly use.

Rankin said it took some fancy financial footwork, but when the Public Health Nursing Association was firmly established, it gave the Social Service League $2,500. In 1919, the Social Service League bought a frame house at Third and Maine streets from the George Barker estate and gave it to the city for a hospital. The indenture document includes 13 rules adopted by the Board of Trustees and approved by the City Commission. They spelled out, among other things, the hospital’s name and its mission: “The said hospital shall be for the benefit of all inhabitants of the City of Lawrence, Kansas, and of any persons falling sick or being injured or maimed within its city limits, and none of such persons shall ever be excluded on account of race, or physical, social or financial condition.”

In this commitment, the hospital was already ahead of its time and set the course for the next 100 years. Now that the city had a building, a public appeal was made for funds to repair and equip it as a hospital. City residents, clubs and businesses rallied to the cause, and about $10,000 was raised.

photo by: Contributed Photo

Lawrence Memorial Hospital’s first building was this house on Maine Street.

After months of hard work repairing and remodeling the building, Lawrence Memorial Hospital opened to care for patients on Jan. 17, 1921. True community need and local support built the first hospital, and efforts were made to improve and expand the facilities over the next six years.

“But it was apparent that with all of our efforts, the hospital was inadequate and not what the city was entitled to have,” Rankin said. But then a wonderful thing happened — a special person stepped up to make a lasting difference in health care in Lawrence.

Elizabeth Miller Watkins, a generous philanthropist who supported the University of Kansas and city of Lawrence in many ways, offered to donate the money to build a new, modern hospital building. After a trip to Chicago with Dr. M.T. Sudler to secure the best hospital architect they could find, Watkins donated $200,000 to pay for construction costs for a new brick building that would hold 50 beds. It opened in 1929.

photo by: Contributed Photo

This 50-bed Lawrence Memorial Hospital building opened in 1929.

The thread of Watkins’ philanthropy weaves conspicuously through LMH’s history, from those earliest days to the present. Watkins again funded construction when an addition was built on the hospital in 1937, increasing capacity to 75 beds. She also built a nurses’ home, and upon her death in 1939 left the hospital an endowment, which continues to generate income.

Vision and philanthropy have played prominent roles in the establishment and success of the community hospital. It came from Barnes’ dream, the groundwork of the Social Service League, the leadership of Rankin, the generosity of Watkins, and the support of countless other individuals, businesses and organizations over the past 100 years, including the LMH Health Foundation which began in 1969.

LMH Health President and CEO Russ Johnson said that through expansion and community support, the original “idea” of a modest place to care for anyone in need has grown to include a 174-bed hospital with the latest diagnostic and surgical technology, the new LMH Health West Campus outpatient facility, and 28 specialty and primary care clinics in Douglas, Jefferson and Leavenworth counties. It encompasses hundreds of medical staff members and community volunteers, and it is still guided by a governing board of nine Lawrence residents.

“LMH Health has demonstrated our founding mission by increasing access to primary care and specialty services that wouldn’t otherwise be available in our community, including world-class orthopedics, oncology, cardiology, robotic surgery and emergency care,” Johnson said, adding that the hospital provides about $25 million in charitable care each year.

“Lawrence Memorial Hospital was founded upon a promise to serve all members of our community and a belief that all people deserve a place of safety, dignity and comfort in which to receive excellent medical care,” he said. “I am incredibly honored to be a part of that purpose which has persevered and guided the organization for 100 years.”

What’s up for 2021?

While the COVID-19 pandemic might delay some public celebrations of the hospital’s centennial, look for the following throughout the year:

• Permanent historical display at the hospital: Hospital staff and volunteers are planning to work with the Watkins Museum and the KU Museum Studies program to develop a permanent display commemorating key milestones, dates and events in LMH’s history.

• Centennial Children Scholarship Fund: Children born at LMH Health in 2021 will be eligible to apply for a post-high school scholarship toward their next step in education, whether it be college, trade school or other training.

• “Born at LMH” program: This will be an opportunity to share through social media and other channels what was happening at the hospital, in the city and in the world at large by profiling individuals born at LMH over the years.

— Janice Early is the special projects leader for the LMH Health Centennial.


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