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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 Waters, 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
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.
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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