The story of the East Texas Medical Center Regional Healthcare System begins with the “Greatest Generation.” These post-World War II citizens who made the world safe for democracy, then shaped their home communities with the same zeal for quality of life issues, including healthcare.
America in the late 1940s was a nation with a sense of accomplishment at triumphing over its enemies in World War II. The returning service men and women were anxious to get back to civilian life and the populous was elated to have the rationing and deprivations of the home front war effort behind them. There was a spirit of national unity in the war effort that remained and pervaded society in the post war period of the late 1940s and 1950s. These are the men and women that today we refer to as the “greatest generation.” They led our nation on a remarkable renaissance of economic, social, civic and scientific advancements for the next few decades. The men and women of this generation in Tyler exemplify this period in history.
Tyler during this era was benefiting from the post war boom along with the rest of the nation. It was experiencing resurgent economic growth. Unemployment was low. Enrollment in colleges and universities was up. Downtown Tyler was the progressive area that symbolized optimism for the entire city during the post war boom.
This boom in Tyler and its growing population contributed to a desperate shortage of hospital beds. Conversations about this issue among some of Tyler’s leading citizens began quietly in 1946 and erupted into the public arena in 1947. They recognized that Tyler was woefully short of hospital beds. The U. S. Public Health Service standard at the time was four beds per 1,000 population. Smith County had only 1.4 beds per 1,000, clearly making it a designated “critical” shortage area as deemed for anything under two beds per 1,000 population.
In addition to the hospital bed shortage, there were other issues recognized by the Tyler civic leaders that necessitated enhancing Tyler’s medical and healthcare resources, there was a severe nursing shortage in Smith County and a need for a blood bank. There were also several well-regarded specialty doctors in Tyler (primarily surgical specialties) that did not have a hospital capable of supporting the full extent of their capabilities. Many of these traveled to the nearby small rural hospitals to perform their various surgeries.
Long time Tyler resident Wade Ridley recounts: “Tyler had a small medical community. People were beginning to discover it was good place to live, but the [medical] services were limited. You could get your appendix out here, but anything much more complicated than that you went to Dallas or Houston. But the care you got here was good.” Also, there was a new Federal program, the Hill-Burton Act, which offered significant financial assistance to rural communities to construct and equip hospitals. Tyler’s population in 1950 was about 39,000 – not really rural, but not a big city either. Regardless, Tyler was eligible for funding from the Hill-Burton Act.
In 1947 the Smith County Hospital Committee was formed to develop a plan to address these issues. The initial group included C. C. McDonald, MD; C. E. Willingham, MD; R. W. Fair; Henry Bell Sr.; W. E. Stewart; W. A. Pounds and Tom Ramey, Sr. For the next few months, these and numerous other leading citizens met and discussed the medical needs in Tyler and Smith County. This committee expanded its membership and was renamed the Smith County Hospital Association. Subsequently, in early 1948 it became the East Texas Hospital Association and soon afterwards became the East Texas Hospital Foundation (ETHF).
These visionary leaders developed and made public a complete list of medical resources needed by the community. In a talk given in 1948 by one of the vocal leaders of the initiative, Dr. C. C. McDonald asserted that the project would need “a 35/40 acre tract immediately adjacent to Mother Frances Hospital” and “other facilities for better utilization and sufficient patient volume to attract (physician) specialists.” Both hospitals would be “open staff,” which led to the Smith County Medical Society assuming the responsibility for credentialing physicians to have privileges at both hospitals. In addition, a school of nursing was “mandatory,” along with a blood bank to serve the region. Space or lots on the site were to be reserved only for physicians to build their clinics. Acreage was also to be set aside for the construction at some future date of a Crippled Children’s Hospital.
To finance the project, it was decided to call a bond election for the purpose of building and equipping what would be named Medical Center Hospital (MCH). The Hill-Burton Act would make $500,000 available for this purpose, but only if the community matched double that amount – one million dollars. To complete all of what was needed in this ambitious undertaking would require more than the $1,500,000 from the bond and federal dollars, so a fundraising project was initiated as well. This need for fundraising from the community drove the creation of the East Texas Hospital Foundation, so that donations to the non-profit foundation could be tax deductible. Another requirement in the Hill-Burton Act was that the recipient of funds had to be a municipality, county, or state.
A 35-acre tract of land adjacent to Mother Frances Hospital in the Douglas Estate was deemed the ideal location for the new hospital and was acquired by the ETHF in 1948. It was envisioned that the two hospitals could share some services in common, such as laundry. In addition, the physicians were keen on having the two hospitals adjacent to each other, so as to simplify their practice and as an inducement to attract specialty doctors to the area.
From the beginning of what is today the East Texas Medical Center (ETMC), the vision of the founders was to create a medical center complex to provide for the medical needs of not just Tyler and Smith County, but the entire East Texas region. These men and women of the “greatest generation” were truly visionaries and farsighted planners. In 2000, this was recognized retrospectively in a Tyler Morning Telegraph’s Century of Our Lives edition: “In 1951 we were a small group of East Texans with a big dream: to build a hospital that would rival any hospital, anywhere.”
A new hospital opens
Medical Center Hospital (now ETMC Tyler) officially opened for patients on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 1951, to great fanfare by the Tyler community. On the preceding Saturday, the physicians and special guests were given a tour of the hospital followed by a banquet in the Blackstone Hotel. On Sunday and Monday, the hospital was opened to the public, which drew huge crowds.
MCH was built during a transition period in hospital architecture and design. MCH was one of the first hospitals in the United States to be designed and built with central air conditioning. Another new and modern feature of the building was ledges above the windows that extended four feet out away from the exterior of the building. The ledges were to provide shade for the windows to help keep the interior cool, as well as protect from hail, and thus are consistent with the old style of natural venting and cooling. Despite central air conditioning, the hospital design retained the old architectural style (many large windows, built on a hill, surgery and obstetrics located on the upper floors – since insects rarely fly above 20 feet off the ground).
The main entrance to the hospital was located on the facility’s original first floor and opened into the lobby. Also on the first floor were the business and administrative offices. At the time it was a modern innovation to have a centralized telephone switchboard providing the ability to communicate from any part of the hospital to any other part. The communications system included one of the very first nurse call systems, whereby a patient in a room could easily alert the nursing staff that they desired attention. In addition there were facility-wide speakers for paging and piped in music.
The third floor housed the surgery suites and patient rooms for surgical patients. This included not only operating rooms and adjacent scrub and locker rooms, the operating rooms were designed to support various surgical specialties (e.g., orthopedic, urology, dental). It also had a cast room where plaster casts were formed around the affected part of the patient. The patient rooms were for both pre- and post-surgical patients.
The fourth floor housed the maternity ward and the nursery. There were 19 patient rooms for the mothers. Three of these were adjacent to the two delivery rooms and reserved for women in active labor. The other 16 beds were nearer to the nursery, which was complete with large glass windows for viewing the babies in their bassinets. The nursery had a special unit with four incubators for premature births. Of course, the fourth floor also had an ample and comfortable waiting room for the expectant fathers and family.
The fifth floor was not finished out for hospital purposes, although the space was used to count the total number of beds (166) designed to be included in the hospital. Only 110 beds were actually operational at the opening. Instead, the fifth floor was built out as a dorm for housing the nurses and other staff from out of town, as well as nursing students.
Including the nurses, about 200 employees were on the first year’s payroll for the new Medical Center Hospital, and the medical staff was composed of more than 30 doctors and dentists. The charter physicians held appointments at both MCH and Mother Frances Hospital, and all agreed that providing a choice of hospitals for Tyler was good for the community’s growth as a healthcare center for East Texas.