The Private Hospital Era
Author: Grace Shackman
Between 1875 and 1945, the city was home to seventeen proprietary hospitals. Ann Arborites could go to Dr. Cowie for a difficult diagnosis, study nursing with Dr. Peterson, get cuts stitched by Dr. Gates, and have their babies in Nurse Grove’s home.
When Dr. Carl Malcolm Jr. started practicing in Ann Arbor in the 1930's, many patients still expected him to treat them at home. When he urged them to go to the hospital, Malcolm recalls, "they thought it was the end of things."
Malcolm's older patients had been born in a time when anything a doctor could do to help he could do in their homes. As recently as the mid-1800s, hospitals were charity institutions for those who had no home to be sick in—"refuges mainly for the homeless poor and insane," according to Paul Starr's The Social Transformation of American Medicine.
Starr's fascinating medical history explains how, "in a matter of decades, roughly between 1870 and 1910, hospitals moved from the periphery to the center of medical education and medical practice." A string of breakthroughs, including antisepsis, anesthesia, and X-rays, transformed surgery from a desperate last resort into a routine medical tool. At first, doctors performed surgery in people's homes--Elsa Goetz Ordway remembers the family physician operating on her mother on the dining room table in 1914. But as medical standards rose, more and more doctors preferred to work in hospitals, which gradually evolved from shelters for the poor and the dying into, in Starr's words, "doctors' workshops for all types and classes of patients."
Today, Ann Arbor's three huge hospitals--the U-M, St. Joe's, and the VA--together handle more than a million patient visits every year. But it took a long time to get there. Both the University of Michigan Hospital (1869) and St. Joseph Mercy Hospital (1911) started out serving mere handfuls of patients in converted homes. For two generations, they shared the town with numerous small hospitals owned by individual practitioners.
Between 1875 and 1945, Ann Arbor had at least seventeen "proprietary" hospitals. All were located in converted houses. Otherwise, they were as different as the personalities and medical specialties of their owners.
The hospitals' owners included some of the most distinguished physicians in the city. Dr. David Murray Cowie founded the U-M pediatrics department, cared for patients at the U-M Hospital, and engaged in extensive research while also running his own hospital in a former mansion on South Division Street. His colleague Dr. Reuben Peterson, U-M professor of "women's and children's diseases," established a private medical complex that eventually filled ten buildings on Forest, Church, and South University. At the other end of the spectrum, nurse Josephine Grove took patients into her own home on Huron near Revena, caring for them around the clock. And Neil Gates, a down-to-earth general practitioner, attempted to treat almost every kind of medical ailment, whether in a patient's home, in his downtown office, or in his hospital on South Fifth Avenue.
Dr. Cowie's exclusive clientele
Dr. David Cowie's sprawling brick mansion at 320 South Division is by far the most impressive
surviving former hospital. In its day, it was also the most prestigious.
Cowie was born in Canada in 1872 to Scottish parents (his obituary called him "as Scotch as MacGregor"). He came to Michigan in 1892 to attend Battle Creek College but soon transferred to the U-M, where he graduated from the medical school and was hired as an assistant in internal medicine in 1896. He earned a second medical degree at the University of Heidelberg in 1908, the year he married Anna Marion Cook, who was also a doctor, although there is no evidence that she ever practiced medicine.
When Cowie returned from Germany, he was asked by medical dean George Dock to start a pediatrics department at the U-M Hospital. He opened his private diagnostic hospital a few years later, starting out with four rooms on the second floor at 122 North Fourth Avenue.
In 1918, Cowie tripled the number of patients he could serve by buying the home at 320 South Division built in the mid-1880s for Adelbert Noble, proprietor of the Star Clothing House. Cowie added on an institutional dining room and kitchen to the back of the house and built a third floor for additional patient rooms. Set up to provide complete medical and surgical services, the hospital boasted an automatic elevator, and every room had running water. The nurses wore pink uniforms.
Edith Staebler Kempf, whose in-laws lived next door in what is now the Kempf House Center for Local History, remembered Cowie Private Hospital as "a hospital for rich women." But according to the Medical History of Michigan, published in 1930 by the Michigan State Medical Society, some exceptions were made. The authors wrote of Cowie's "ministration to semi-indigent gentlefolk" as "a pleasant feature" of the hospital.
Retired surgeon Thurston Thieme sometimes assisted with operations at Cowie's as a U-M intern. He agrees with Kempf about the high-toned clientele. He remembers setting out the sterilized instruments for Dr. Frederick Coller, the distinguished chairman of surgery at the U-M, while Coller complained that the patient should have come to the U-M Hospital for the operation. But according to Thieme,"Cowie had the best families as patients. He got the necessary doctors to come in."
Cowie attracted patients from all around the state. Dr. Allen Saunders, a local pediatrician who grew up in Coldwater, remembers that a number of relatives and family friends chose to come to Cowie's in Ann Arbor rather than be treated locally.
Cowie's prominent patients included Francis Kelsey, U-M professor of Latin and director of Near East research. Kelsey, for whom the Kelsey Museum was named, was a friend and admirer of Cowie's. In a 1924 letter to philanthropist Horace Rackham, who underwrote his archaeological work, Kelsey wrote that his wife, Isabelle was sick but was receiving expert care from Cowie: "I have a friend who is a scientific physician in charge of a private hospital where obscure cases of her sort are investigated. She is there now and her case is being studied with the help of the X-ray and other means of diagnosis." It is not known what Cowie found, but Isabelle Kelsey lived another twenty years, to the age of eighty-two.
Francis Kelsey was not so lucky. In 1927, he returned from a dig in Egypt in failing health and immediately checked into Cowie's hospital. Too weak to give the paper on his findings that he had come home expressly to deliver, he got out of his sick bed to go to the meeting and hear someone else read it for him. He came back to the hospital and died a few weeks later.
Though his hospital was exclusive, Cowie's research ended up benefiting children throughout the state and the nation. At the time, many children in the Great Lakes region suffered from goiters--swollen thyroid glands in the neck—due to a lack of iodine in the soil. At Cowie's suggestion, a state commission was appointed in 1922 to study the problem. Cowie chaired the group, which first considered adding the iodine to drinking water. When that proved too expensive, they switched to the idea of adding it to table salt. At their urging, iodized salt was marketed in Michigan starting in 1924. Before Cowie began his crusade, 35 percent of Detroit school¬children suffered from goiters. With the introduction of iodized salt, the incidence was reduced to 1.4 percent. The use of iodized salt spread throughout the country and is commonplace today.
Cowie died on January 27, 1940. He became sick while on the way to his cottage in the Irish Hills, returned to Ann Arbor, and entered his own hospital, where he died of a coronary thrombosis. "Dr. Cowie's interests extended far beyond the limits of his profession," the Ann Arbor News wrote. "He was widely read, of broad human sympathies, quiet in demeanor, yet forceful. Literally hundreds of children owed their lives to his professional knowledge and unusual sympathetic insight." After Cowie's death, his hospital was divided into apartments, a use it still retains.
Dr. Peterson's medical empire
Like Cowie, Reuben Peterson served people who were willing to pay for better service than was available in the public hospitals of the time. Thurston Thieme remembers Dr. Peterson's Private Hospital as "a fine hospital, greatly respected and well known." His patients were all women and children, some of whom came from other towns and even other states.
For most of its early years, Peterson's hospital was located in a former fraternity house at 620 South Forest. He was so successful that he expanded into surrounding buildings, until he had the capacity to treat forty patients and train sixteen nurses. His private medical empire eventually included an annex at 614 Forest; a maternity hospital at 610 Forest; five residences for employees and nursing students on Forest, Church, and South University; and two hospitals, run for him by other doctors, at 1216 and 1218 South University.
Peterson was born in Boston in 1862; he received both undergraduate and medical degrees from Harvard, graduating in 1889. He set up the nurse's training program at St. Mark's Hospital in Grand Rapids and taught gynecology at Rush Medical School in Chicago before accepting an appointment to the U-M medical school in 1901. He started his hospital the next year. "The University of Michigan Hospital contains 225 beds," he wrote to explain the move. "It is full to overflowing the year around and many patients are compelled to board outside and wait for beds."
Peterson's hospital opened in June 1902 in an old house at 1215 South University. Peterson's partners, Fantine Pemberton, an early graduate of the new U-M nursing school, and her widowed mother, Laura Pemberton, rented and furnished the hospital building. Besides serving for many years as Peterson's superintendent of nursing and matron respectively, the two women also provided household goods, equipment, and tableware of their own for use in the hospital. A few months later, the hospital moved to the larger house at 620 Forest.
Peterson ran his own nurse's training program at his hospital. He awarded the first degrees in 1907, the same year he incorporated the school and bought out the Pembertons' interest. (Both women continued to work for him.) By 1909, he had six nurses in training. In 1912 Peterson set up the hospital annex and the next year the maternity hospital.
Peterson did not strictly separate his private life from the hospital. In 1910, he installed a "laundry appliance and mangle" in the basement of the hospital and hired Mary Simons and her husband for laundry work, with the understanding that they also would do his wife's laundry. (He had married the former Josephine Davis of Elk Rapids in 1890.) When he used 614 Forest as a home for nurses, he and Mrs. Peterson furnished it with a piano from their home.
In 1920 Peterson decided to discontinue the nurse's training school, "because of the difficulties in maintaining a high standard of training under present conditions." Nursing historian Linda Strodtman explains that "as nursing standards developed, it was not sufficient to just offer women's care." After 1920, Peterson confined his work to one building, keeping 620 Forest as the hospital and the house next door at 614 for a nurses' home, and selling or renting the rest of his property. Shortly after, in 1922, he was promoted to head the ob-gyn department at the U-M medical school.
Clara Schnierle worked at Peterson's hospital from 1928 to 1932 as a cook's helper. She remembers Peterson as a good man and a good doctor--reserved, but still someone you felt comfortable around. "He was strict, like everyone in those days," Schnierle recalls. "You did your duties as he wanted; if you didn't like it, you moved on." Schnierle lived on the third floor of the hospital, which also contained the operating room. On the second floor there were eight private rooms and a nursery where the newborns slept in little baskets.
As a boy, book manufacturer Joe Edwards had his tonsils out at Peterson's. Many women were there for childbirth, but some came with illnesses. According to Schnierle, the patients generally chose Peterson's so they could have a private room and avoid the medical students at University Hospital. Maternity patients stayed two weeks, sitting up only after ten days. If they had twins, they stayed three weeks. Some of the patients hired their own personal nurses. Schnierle remembers a preemie, born three months early, who was tended by two nurses in twelve-hour shifts. The mother was cared for by two other private nurses. After three months in the hospital, the baby and mother went home, accompanied by all four nurses.
Schnierle recalls that Dr. Peterson came by every day, usually in the afternoon, after attending to his work at the university. He spent every summer, when the university was in recess, at his summer home in Duxbury, Massachusetts, arranging with other doctors to take care of emergencies and putting off elective surgery until he returned in the fall.
In 1931, Peterson retired from the university. When Schnierle left to get married in 1932, she was not replaced because Peterson's hospital was shrinking again. It closed for good the next year and Peterson moved permanently to Duxbury, where he died on November 25, 1942, at age eighty. His hospital became a rooming house and later was torn down to make room for the Forest Avenue parking structure.
Nurse Grove's home hospital
Most proprietary hospitals were owned by doctors. But the Grove Cottage Hospital, 1422 West Huron
at Revena, was owned and operated by nurse Josephine Grove and her husband, Otto, who was listed in
the city directory as a traveling salesman.
The Groves turned their home into a hospital in the mid-1920s and ran it until Otto's death in 1934. Upstairs were two bedrooms for patients (they kept the third bedroom for themselves). Downstairs another bedroom was available for overflow patients. The upstairs bathroom served visiting doctors as an operating room. Mrs. Grove herself cared for her patients around the clock.
Most of Grove's patients were referred by a neighbor, Dr. John Gates, who lived at 201 South Revena. Many were women giving birth. Helen Wolf Curtis remembers that her brother was born at the Grove Cottage Hospital in 1927. Her family lived at 110 South Revena, so when her mother, Lucy Wolf, went into labor, she just walked down the street. After Dr. Peterson's hospital closed, his former employee, Clara Schnierle, chose to have her first child at Grove's. She explains that in those days people differed on whether to have their babies at home or in the hospital. Schnierle and her husband decided they would rather have the first one in a hospital, so their physician, John Gates, recommended the Grove Cottage Hospital. Schnierle remembers Mrs. Grove as "very pleasant, very serious-minded.”
Sophie Walker, who lived nearby at 330 South Seventh, had her baby at Grove's hospital in 1928, not with Dr. Gates, but with another doctor, whom she chose because he spoke German. She had come from Germany just two years before. She liked Grove's hospital because it was like a private home, but she has a sad memory of the patient in the other room crying after giving birth: she wasn't married and was giving up her baby for adoption.
Maternity was not the only service offered. When Helen Wolf Curtis was a girl, she fell off the front stoop and broke her arm, and Dr. John Gates set it. Eleven years later, in 1929, she had the plate taken out at Grove's hospital, and while she was there she also had her tonsils and adenoids out. She remembers the hospital as "a wonderful place, not very plush but neat and clean."
Dr. John Gates's elder brother, Neil, was also a doctor, a well-loved general practitioner. But according to his grandson Jeff Rentschler, he struggled financially until he bought his own hospital.
Gates's hospital at 314 South Fifth Avenue (now the parking lot of the Federal Building) exemplified a general practitioner's proprietary hospital. Neil Gates was the classic GP--he made house calls even in the worst weather, never took vacations (another grandson, David Gates, remembers him saying, "I'll take a vacation on the day nobody gets sick"), and was rarely allowed to sleep through the night. He smoked cigars constantly; people said they didn't recognize him without one. His niece Janet Ivory remembers him coming to her house when she was sick as a little girl. "When I smelled the cigar smoke, I felt better because I knew he was there. I knew I would get better."
Gates was born in Ann Arbor in 1873, the son of contractor John Gates and Dora McCormick Gates. He graduated from the U-M medical school in 1897 and started his career in Dexter. In about 1900 he built the Gates Block there as an office and infirmary (it is now occupied by insurance and real estate offices). Ten years later he moved to Ann Arbor and opened an office at 117 East Liberty, but he still kept up his large rural practice.
In the early days, Gates made house calls in a horse and buggy. In later years, his daughter,
Lois Gates Rentschler, would drive him, often taking her son, Jeff, along. Jeff and his mother would
usually stay in the car or walk around outside, but he has one memory of going inside the house of
an elderly women in Dexter and eating homemade graham crackers with butter in front of her
During the flu epidemic of 1918, Gates ministered heroically to his rural patients. The epidemic hit Ann Arbor in the fall, but didn't get out into the country until the winter. Gates usually made winter visits in a one-horse sleigh that he drove himself, but during the epidemic he hired a two-horse wagon and a driver so that he could sleep between visits. During the terrible epidemic, which claimed 548,000 lives nationwide, it was the only rest he got.
Gates made a lot of his own medicine using natural materials--plants, weeds, bark, fungus-—that he mashed with a pestle. For refined ingredients, he dealt exclusively with Fischer's Pharmacy. David Gates remembers that his grandfather carried three or four bags filled with all sorts of medicines, including some sugar pills he gave to people with imagined illnesses.
The Ann Arbor Railroad tracks ran right behind Gates's house at 440 South Main. When he was at home, his wife would put a scarf on the pole of the bird-house in the backyard, so the train crews could stop if they had a medical problem. They would toot their whistle and Gates would come out to take a cinder out of an eye, treat a burn, set a broken arm, or help a passenger with motion sickness.
Despite all his business, Gates for many years didn't make much money. David Gates remembers that his grandparents had a monster icebox and a big pantry, usually filled with eggs, chickens, and whatever produce was in season, contributed by patients who couldn't afford to pay in cash. But Jeff Rentschler says their grandfather did much better after he started his own hospital in 1924.
The hospital Gates bought was an old Queen Anne house on South Fifth Avenue, built about 1895, complete with tower and wraparound front porch. In 1906, U-M medical professor Cyrenus Darling had converted it into a hospital with its own operating room and eight private patient rooms. In 1911, Darling became one of eight founding staff doctors at St. Joe's, which started out in a former rooming house on the corner of State and Kingsley. For a few years Darling worked at both hospitals, but in 1916 he decided to concentrate on St. Joe's. The hospital was run by James and Muriel McLaren as "Maplehurst" until Dr. Gates bought it 1924.
Gates modernized the hospital by adding an X-ray facility, a second operating room (used mainly for delivering babies), and two wards, raising its capacity to twenty-eight patients. In his book Historic Michigan, George Fuller called Gates's hospital "one of the most complete and up-to-date of the many privately owned institutions of its kind in the United States."
As in his office and rural practice, Gates continued to treat whatever needs his patients had, although he had a reputation for being particularly good at stitching. W. H. Priestkorn went there as a boy to have his appendix out. Nate Weinberg's mother was operated on for pleurisy. Sam Schlect remembers someone he knew being stitched up by Dr. Gates after a Fourth of July explosion slashed his cheek.
Gates had a lot of maternity business. Mary Schlect, Sam's wife, gave birth to their daughter there in 1943. Sam was in the army, so she came with her neighbor, Gladys Water, who also was pregnant, and stayed in a three-bed ward. She remembers that the fee was $110, reduced to $100 if paid in cash. Election worker Bev Kirsht, who was born in Gates's hospital, reports that her father, George Lirette, was in the delivery room both for her birth and that of her sister. Years later, the Lamaze Association would have to fight local hospitals for this privilege, but Gates was ahead of his time on the issue. He routinely told the men, "Go out and take off your tie and jacket and come back in. It's your baby, too." David Gates believes there was a large influx of babies named "Neil" from the Gates's hospital—he says that when his grandfather delivered a boy he would hold him up and say, "If you don't know what to name him, name him 'Neil.' "
Gates never retired. During World War II he was able to continue his usual rural calls, thanks to a special permit that enabled him to buy gasoline and hard-to-obtain tires, both rationed. He was also issued extra ration coupons to buy food for the patients in his hospital.
Dr. Gates died July 16, 1945. By then, his was the last surviving private hospital in the city. The rest had slowly died out, unable to compete with St. Joe's, which had built a big hospital on Ingalls in 1913, and the U-M, which had built a large modern hospital in 1925.
Of all hospitals, Paul Starr writes, the proprietary hospitals' "rate of institutional survival was the lowest. In this regard they were typical of small businesses; they opened and closed with the vicissitudes of personal fortune." Ann Arbor's experience bears this out. None of the hospitals survived their owners. After Gates's death, his hospital was converted to a rooming house. The turreted building was torn down in 1973 to make room for the Federal Building.
The following list of proprietary hospitals and the doctors who owned them was compiled from the City Directory and from people's memories.
Ann Arbor Sanitarium and Private Hospital, Dr. James Lynds, 403 S. Fourth Ave. (now Muehlig's
Ann Arbor Private Hospital, Mrs. Margaret Kelly, proprietor, Huron near First, then 1129 Washtenaw Ave.
Bethel Faith Home, Mrs. Augusta Whitlark, matron, 126 Observatory
Dr. William Blair, 311 S. Division St.
Burrett-Smith, Dr. Cyrus Burrett and Dr. Dean T. Smith, first at 721 E. Washington, then at 416 S. Fifth Ave.
Classen Private Hospital, Dr. Carrie Classen, osteopath, 429 Hamilton Place
Cowie Private Hospital, Dr. David M. Cowie, 320 S. Division St.
Curtrest Maternity Home and Hospital, Mrs. Severine C. Curtiss, 1100 E. Huron St.
Dr. Neil Gates, 314 S. Fifth Ave.
Grove Cottage Hospital, Josephine and Otto Grove, 1422 W. Huron St.
Herdman's Private Hospital, Dr. William James Herdman, 709 W. Huron St.
Institute of Ozonotherapy, R. M. Leggett, manager, 120 N. Fourth Ave.
Maplehurst, James and Muriel McLaren, first at 314 S. Fifth Ave., then at 822 Arch
Dr. Katherine Martin, 120 N. Fourth Ave.
Dr. Peterson's Private Hospital, Dr., Reuben Peterson, 620 S. Forest Ave.
Washtenaw Private Hospital, also known as Dr. Cummings's Private Hospital, Dr. Howard Cummings, 216 N. State St.
Vreeland Maternity Home, Mrs.Velva C. Vreeland, 315 W. Mosley
[Photo caption from book]: Dr. Rueben Peterson, standing by his wife’s roses, ran a hospital for women and children that also served as a nurse’s training school.
[Photo caption from book]: Dr. Neil Gates ran the city's last private hospital at 314 S. Fifth. Unable to keep up with advances at public hospitals, it closed after his death in 1945 and was torn down in 1973.
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