First Knoxville Hospital Listed in 1885

First Hospital in Knoxville Listed in 1885

Makeshift Institution for Care of Patients Located in Old Strong Home

by Peggy Levy

Knoxville Journal, April 26, 1936, page 54

What is almost our first thought today when illness or accident strikes us?  The hospital, of course!  But 50 years ago – and just barely that – one had no real hospital to turn to for treatment.  Dr. S. R. Miller tells a story of driving around in his buggy (sometimes from two to five hours) looking for a place where a patient with a broken leg might be cared for.  In his regular boarding house, no one wanted to carry meals to and wait on an invalid.

Our earliest record of a hospital in Knoxville is taken from the city directory of 1885, which also states that Miss Sarah C. Roach was matron.  This makeshift hospital was in the old Dr. Joseph Strong Home at what is now the corner of State street and Cumberland avenue, and is the same brick building now being used by the Volunteers of America.

On this point there has been some contention – the old state capitol building across the street was thought to have been the hospital – however, authorities on the subject agree that it was not.

While a poor excuse for a hospital the old Strong home was better than none.  According to one of the older doctors, at that time there was no operating table, two wooden benches were used with boards across them.  The doctor had to furnish his own instruments, dressings, sterile water, pans, and sometimes a portable operating table weighing about 75 pounds – often taking two buggy loads of equipment for one operation.

Established in 1835

While there was no hospital in Knoxville before 1885, Dr. Isaac Wright is known to have established one about 1835 (possibly for his own patients) on a farm owned at present by John Mauney, in Blount county near Wright’s ferry, which was named for the doctor.

According to Dr. J. D. Henderson, at this time there was no law governing the practice of medicine, and no state board of medical examiners.  Very little was known of germs or antiseptics, and practically no laboratory work was done.  The only vaccine or serum in use was smallpox vaccine.

The old Strong home continued to serve as the city hospital until 1902, with a succession of different matrons in charge, including Mrs. Maggie Cauble, Miss Sarah Hood, Mrs. Irene Pollard, and Mrs. Pattie Mosley.  The first recorded superintendent of the hospital was Doram L. Scarlett, now a barber in the city.  Capt. John Montgomery, now a veteran officer in Knoxville’s police department, was superintendent of this hospital from 1900 to 1902.

According to Captain Montgomery, the approximate cost of a day in the hospital was $1.50, which did not include nurses’ fees since there were no general duty nurses such as are furnished today in all hospitals, but only a colored woman and a man or boy to help her.

There being no operating room or equipment, the office was used as such and Captain Montgomery sometimes administered the short anaesthetics [sic].  The sterilizer was a 59-pound lard can in which the instruments were boiled for two hours, and towels were sterilized by baking in the oven of the cook stove.

Free Operation

About this time, a story has been told of a man from the country asking a well known doctor for a free operation, saying that he was unable to pay for one.  He suggested that medical students be allowed to watch the operation as part of their instruction, but agreed to pay the doctor his regular visit charges for each post-operation visit.  The day arrived.  On finding no safe at the hospital, the patient turned over to the doctor for safekeeping two bank books showing a balance of $1,000, a very valuable watch (the heavy chain of which he said was valued at more than $200 in gold) and about $40 in cash.  Nevertheless, the doctor kept his promise of a free operation and the patient paid the regular charges for each visit thereafter, and upon recuperating received his valuables in keeping of the doctor.

Meanwhile from 1897 on, negotiations were being started for the erection of a real hospital.  Funds were being raised by benefits; the first, held in 1897 by the Legion Band netted $267.50.  Gifts, picnics, ladies’ clubs, bazaars, ball games, all slowly helped swell the fund.  In 1898 despite the opposition of Mayor Sam Heiskell who said “Bats and owls will nest in it and it will never be used,” the Knoxville General Hospital was started.

Some competition, mostly financial, caused delay, but Knoxvillians were anxious for the completion of this project.  An educational article appeared in the Journal and Tribune of July 18, 1901, stating that

“– in 1900 the city cared for 114 patients 3,275 days at a cost of $3,191.32, or 92 cents per day for each patient, and for what character of service?  The city physician and superintendent of the hospital have labored faithfully in a building not constructed for such work and poorly equipped and hardly worthy of the name of poor house.”

The hospital was completed and formally opened in April, 1902, at which time the Journal and Tribune reported that “the operating room was a place of interest.  Several hundred dollars worth of apparatus was there in place.”  Several hundred dollars, then a tremendous expenditure, when today the cost of equipping one operating room in a modern 500-bed hospital is in excess of $10,000, which sum does not include X-ray equipment amounting to $20,000 to $50,000 additional, according to figures compiled by the American Hospital Association.

Dr. B. B. Cates performed the first operation in that new hospital and the boy is still living; Miss Ada Lawhon nursed the patient.

School Beginning

About 1901 the Tennessee Medical college became the medical department of the Lincoln Memorial hospital university, and the Lincoln Memorial hospital was built across from the City hospital in what was then a large commons and a grove of pines.  Later, about 1914, when the Tennessee Medical college combined with the University of Tennessee and moved to Memphis, the Lincoln Memorial operated the hospital.  It was not until 1918, the year that “Greater Knoxville” was incorporated (taking in Lonsdale, Park City, and West Knoxville) that Lincoln Memorial and Knoxville General were consolidated.

Even at that time, with the tremendous strides that had been made in hospital service and equipment, Miss Elizabeth Killifer, present superintendent of nurses at Fort Sanders hospital, and who in 1917 was in training says:

“As late as 1917, in New York, the hospitals did not have plumbing equipment in all the wards.  Our first duty was to run and fill the pitchers in each room with hot water.  Of course, running water available, but no in all the rooms, much of the present equipment of hospitals was then not known.  Oxygen tents had not been invented at that time; oxygen was administered only in extreme emergency, and then through a funnel held over the patient’s nose and attached to the tank by a rubber tube.”

Riverside Hospital

About 1917 a large apartment house on Riverside drive was converted into a hospital which was known as Riverside hospital, with Miss Floreid Thompson as matron.  Until Riverside hospital was opened, it was frequently impossible to find a vacant bed for a patient, and this hospital was a great help.  Later, in 1920, Fort Sanders hospital was established and was modern in every respect.

It was in 1928 that Riverside and Fort Sanders hospitals were consolidated, operating as the Riverside-Fort Sanders hospital.  Later, in 1930, St. Mary’s was opened, adding 64 more beds to Knoxville’s hospital facilities.

It hardly seems possible that in no more than 50 years, Knoxville has three large, well equipped hospitals, several private institutions, and a number of infirmaries, for in this modern age a great number of specialists have infirmaries for their private use in the treatment of minor ailments.

Leave a Reply