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City Hospital: Advancements, Expansions, and the Scandal of 1944

These history excerpts are taken from: The Medical Center: 1836 - 1991 by William W. Winn

This week's blog includes more of the history of City Hospital from 1900 until present day: medical advancements, a third hospital and its expansions, an embezzling scandal, and several of our community's doctors who served Columbus.

The Muscogee County Medical Society was formed on August 26, 1905. They were among the leaders in the fight for a new, more modern city hospital. These 18 physicians, along with many others, wanted to build a new hospital just ten years after the second city hospital was constructed. There was an amazing transformation taking place in civic life of Columbus under Mayor L.H. Chappell, and there were equally amazing discoveries and progress in medical science, including public health and medical education, not seen since the 1870s. Together, these two trends – one civic and political, the other scientific and medical, conspired to render the 1895 hospital building obsolete almost the moment it was finished. Medicine had improved tremendously by 1905. Not only had there been continuing discoveries by Pasteur, Koch, and others in bacteriology and the origins of disease and infections, Pasteur developed his anti-rabies vaccine, Ernst von Bergman introduced steam sterilization to surgery, William S. Halsted introduced rubber gloves, the importance of fly control, and the introduction of the x-ray, among others. As a result, life expectancy of the average American had risen from 33 in 1800 to 40 in 1855 to 50 in 1900. There was also a change in attitude toward the medical profession in general. Even the hospitals, formerly regarded as poor houses and temporary stops to the cemetery, began to be looked upon more favorable as healing institutions. In 1910, an influx of skilled physicians came into Columbus. Among them were Drs. W.L. Cooke, J.R. Youmans, J.M. Baird, George S. Murray, J.C. Wooldridge, A.P. Tatum, and Fidella Jane LiFrage (Odom nee Howard) who became the city’s first female physician and the first female member of the Muscogee County Medical Society. By 1914, a Board of Health would be established in Muscogee County, and in 1939 the health departments of the city and county would be joined under one city-county officer, Dr. James A. Thrash.

The site selected for the third city hospital was the highest point in Rose Hill – on the other side of Linwood Cemetery from the 1895 hospital. It was on property occupied by the old Cowdery home between 7th and 8th Avenues and 18th and 19th Streets. Its four-story height on a basement made it a skyscraper for the time, exceeded only by the new Ralston Hotel downtown. The building (pictured above) was complete in 1915. This was also the year of the first graduating class of nurses from the city hospital. The school was to operate continuously until 1969, when it was phased out to become a part of the Columbus College School of Nursing.

The ward for African Americans was initially placed in the basement of the new City Hospital building, along with special rooms for criminals, washrooms, the kitchen, the furnace, and the x-ray room. Two years later, a new three-story building (pictured above) would be built behind the new hospital. It would temporarily be used for troops during WWI and then given for the exclusive use of African American patients. (There will be more information to come on the annex, doctors, and nurses in the next two weeks in a separate History Spotlight.) Following WWI in 1918, the hospital admitted 720 paying patients and 400 charity patients. More than 1,000 surgical operations were performed, there were 26 births and 104 deaths. About 50 patients were seen in the Annex.

Among the doctors to enter practice about this time were:

Dr. Mercer Blanchard (first pediatrician and pictured to the left); Dr. James H. McDuffie, Jr. (first gynecologist); Dr. W.F. Jenkins (first radiologist); Dr. W. P. Jordan (first urologist); Dr. James A. Thrash after interning in Chicago; and Dr. John H. Winn (Eye, Ear, Nose & Throat specialist).

Dr. Blanchard would perhaps become the most beloved physician in the city’s history and Dr. Thrash would transform public health through his service as Executive Director of the City Hospital from 1948 – 1956 and of The Medical Center from then until his death in 1962.

In 1943 a new west wing would be added to the 1915 building – it would be a four-story addition, plus basement, that would add 50 beds for whites and 20 for African Americans plus extensive lab facilities and autopsy room. The new wing helped relieve the pressure of overcrowding at the hospital due to a population increase of 25,000 people between 1940 and 1944. This was due to the buildup of troops at Fort Benning, their families, and the civilian employees of the military.

1944 brought a nurse's strike and a new administrator to City Hospital, Chauncey C. Burritt. He was originally from Rochester, NY, but when he was hired, he was working in East St. Louis as an acting hospital administrator. He appeared to be a good administrator who was seriously committed to improving conditions at the hospital. His downfall began with a speech he made before the Kiwanis Club in February 1945. He took to task the terrible conditions he said in which he found the hospital, as well as being under the jurisdiction of the City Manager. He somehow managed to hold onto his job, but by October he abruptly let the Board know he was resigning because the Columbus climate was too hard on his wife's health and he had accepted a job in Corpus Christi, Texas. Burritt agreed to stay on until December for the Board to find a replacement. The shock that the Board felt was nothing in comparison to what was coming. On November 12, 1945, Burritt was arrested by the Muscogee County Sheriff E.F. Howell and charged with 29 counts of embezzling $5,000 from the hospital. He proclaimed his innocence, then fled to Reno where he's arrested. In the meantime, Solicitor General Ed Wohlwender learns that Burritt was using an alias and his real name is Edward H. Pulsifer and had been convicted of Grand Larceny in New York. The trial lasted three days. While most people thought he would be found guilty, the jury after four hours of deliberation returned the verdict of not guilty. Thus ending one of the most strange and trying episodes in the history of City Hospital.

Following WWII, the population would continue to increase in Columbus and the medical needs of the community would also continue to grow. A north wing with 80 additional beds would also be constructed. By the mid-1950s the role of City Hospital changed so drastically that many people connected with the facility felt it needed a new name more in keeping with its expanding services. City Hospital had come a long way up from the Pest House. The physicians took a poll and chose the name The Medical Center. This name change became effective on January 1, 1957.

Since 1957, the name has changed a couple more times, but the need for growth and medical improvements has not. Hospital costs would also continue to soar to this day and the community's demand for services has only increased. The facility became a part of the Piedmont family of hospitals in 2018. Today, Piedmont Columbus Regional holds 583 beds, along with the John B. Amos Cancer Center. With our current pandemic, Columbus is fortunate to have the medical professionals at Piedmont and St. Francis to continue to take care of us all. Next week, the history of St. Francis Hospital.

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