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The City Hospital - Early Years

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

Last week, Historic Columbus highlighted on one of our town's original commissioners and first responders - Dr. Edwin L. deGraffenreid. This week, we continue to tell the health-related part of our history in those early years in Columbus - the origins of the first hospital and health officers; treatment available for whites and African Americans; Columbus as a hospital center during the Civil War; and the 1895 Hospital.

The smallpox scare of 1831 had barely subsided when cholera came sweeping down the Eastern Seaboard. When it struck Augusta in 1834, killing 600-700 slaves on 15 plantations, the Columbus City Commission appointed Drs. Thomas Hoxey and John A. Uruquart (pictured below on the left) Health Officers for Columbus and ordered them to inspect every steamboat arriving at the city wharf. In March, the commission gave the physicians the authority to order the Marshal to remove any suspect boat from the wharf immediately. The commissioners also appointed a new Board of Health and gave its members responsibility for making certain the streets were clean and that all residents and businesses adhered to good sanitary practices. Nothing, however, could keep the smallpox out of the city, and in 1836, the same year the townspeople were engaged in a local war with the Creek Indians in Alabama, it struck with a vengeance. Columbus also became a chartered city that same year and John Fontaine became the new Mayor (his home, pictured to the right, was located on Front Avenue and 11th Street). Mayor Fontaine (pictured in the middle) initiated resolutions for the construction of the first city hospital.

The site the Hospital Committee selected for the new structure was on the South Commons, across from the racetrack and near Mary Freeman Landing on the Chattahoochee River. On September 5, 1836, the Board appointed the first Superintendent of the City Hospital, known to most people in Columbus as the “Hospital Keeper.” The new City Hospital was anything but elaborate. It was a single-story structure built of wood with a brick fireplace and brick underpinnings, the latter necessary because the Chattahoochee frequently overflowed its banks. Its yard was fenced, probably as much to keep people out as to keep patients in. In times of epidemic, guards were posted at its entrances and families were forbidden to visit.

There were no beds at the first City Hospital, just straw mattresses on the floor and only a fireplace for heat. The unhealthy conditions explained why people who were not indigent preferred being treated at home. Only paupers and persons with highly contagious diseases were confined in early hospitals, which the public universally called pest houses. The new building was also intended exclusively for whites. African Americans, whether slave or free, were provided for in a separate hospital located some distance from the river in a building near the present-day Porterdale Cemetery. They were looked after also by the Health Officer and the Hospital Keeper. Throughout the antebellum era in Columbus, separate facilities for whites and African Americans were maintained. Slaves living in town with infectious diseases, and certainly those with smallpox, would have been immediately confined to the hospital building mentioned above. Out in the countryside around the town, slaves were cared for in plantation sick houses. Usually, the owner’s wife or the overseer’s wife looked after the slaves. But wherever the slaves lived, the conditions under which they lived were extremely harsh, and illness was commonplace.

Sketch of Columbus in 1868 from Harper's Weekly

During the latter stages of the Civil War, from February 1864 to April 1865, Columbus was a major Confederate Hospital center. The large numbers of wounded coming to Columbus resulted in make-shift hospitals being set up in the courthouse and saloons, downtown stores and churches. The number varies between seven and ten in total. The 1838 Courthouse is pictured below. It was located where our current Government Center sits today. It would be demolished in 1896 for the brick structure the Government Center replaced.

Following the war, so many former rural slaves crowded into Southern cities that disease became a serious problem among African Americans. Dengue fever, smallpox, tuberculosis, and pneumonia were prevalent. Columbus was no exception. Several times City Physicians expressed alarm over the number of newcomers, black and white, who were crowding into the city in search of work. Many of these were rural Alabamians and Floridians who made their way to Columbus in hopes of finding work in the cotton mills. Smallpox was still a huge issue in Columbus, even requiring an ordinance by City Council in 1867, “where there is smallpox in any house within the city limits, the occupant of such house shall be required to display a red flag, in a conspicuous position.” The hospital averaged between 40 and 50 in-patients a year during the 1870s and 1880s, although the City Physicians saw hundreds of indigent patients each year who did not require hospitalization. Upkeep of the wooden structures at the main hospital and the hospital building for African Americans was a constant problem. The Hospital Committee made a pitch every year for a new facility due to the poor conditions of the existing one and the drainage issues of South Commons. In 1892, the Hospital Committee, composed of J.F. Clegg, J. A. Kirven, and E.J. Rankin, reported to City Council that the old hospital was past substantial repairs and was a disgrace to the city. A year later and after considerable public debate, a site was finally selected for the new hospital on the East Commons near Linwood Cemetery (basically next door to present-day Harvey Lumber).

The new City Hospital was finished in 1895 under the administration of Mayor J.J. Slade. The main building contained 18 rooms furnished with electricity and heat. A second one-story building for African Americans was constructed in the rear yard. Even though the public’s attitude toward hospitals was gradually changing, most people still thought of a hospital as a place where only indigents and the terminally ill were treated. The great majority of private patients saw their physicians at home. Surgeries also largely took place at home, as often as not on the kitchen or dining room table. Despite an increasing population in the late 1800s in Columbus, the number of deaths declined. There was, however, a disturbing disparity between the mortality of whites and blacks. In some years, twice as many blacks died as whites. M.M. Moore, Clerk of Council and the person responsible for compiling vital statistics for the city, noted that these excess deaths occurred “largely among young children, and is doubtless owing, in great degree, to lack of proper medical attention and care.” Throughout the 1890s, the principal causes of death among both races in Columbus were consumption, pneumonia, stillbirth, and dysentery.

Improvements in the city’s sewer system, a better and safer water supply, a growing understanding of the importance of sanitation in preventing illness, and an all-out effort to eliminate the type of environment favored by mosquitos, assisted with the medical progress in Columbus before the turn of the century. Next week, we will highlight the continued progress of the City Hospital in the 20th Century and its evolution into the Piedmont Hospital we know today.

You can access ALL of Historic Columbus' History and Preservation Spotlights here:

If you think Historic Columbus is just putting a pretty face on an old building, think again. Thanks to the support of HCF members in 2020, over $450,000 was invested in preservation projects, preservation grants, façade loans, education programming, and museum projects. This year, you will see revitalization in action in High Uptown, City Village, and The Mill District. There will also be a third round of the Public Participation Grant (up to $100,000) this year thanks to the donors of HCF's 50th Anniversary Capital Campaign. If you are not a member, we hope you will consider joining! Your support makes preservation possible!

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