Deseret Hospital now at heritage park

1870s replica includes antique quilt display

Though the beds appear comfortable, the hospital room seems Spartan by today's standards. Supplies and surgeon's tools in the cabinet appear primitive; a physician's study with anatomy charts on the wall and a life-size skeleton model seem quaint, almost Victorian. But this replication of the Deseret Hospital, founded in Salt Lake City in 1882, memorializes a remarkable chapter in the history of the Church.

At a time when women were unrepresented in most of the professions of society, this unique hospital, administered by the Relief Society, was staffed primarily by female physicians who had received their medical training at the behest of the president of the Church.

The new building, which replicate's the hospital's second home, where it functioned from 1884 to 1890, is the newest addition to Old Deseret Village, the living-history attraction at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City. The two-story structure houses the hospital-room replication on the first level and the colorful antique quilt collection of the Utah Quilt Guild on the second.

Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve, once an eminent heart surgeon, dedicated the Deseret Hospital and Quilt Museum Oct. 25. A featured speaker was Dr. Antonia C. Novello, who served as U.S. Surgeon General from 1990 to 1993 and is a pioneer herself, being the first woman and the first Hispanic to hold that post.

Spearheading the creation of the building, and as the principle contributors to it, W. Boyd and Jean Christensen described it as a "labor of love" extending over the past 5 1/2 years.

With donations and other support from 244 individuals and organizations, "we've expended our best efforts to create this legacy," Brother Christensen said, "to combine the care and love and concern that is provided by combining pioneer medicine, service and the art of quilting." Sister Christensen, who was the quilting guild's first president when it was founded in 1977, said, "I think it will be a happy combination. Strangely enough, we have a lot in common. We're the two best groups of stitchers in the country!"

In remarks prior to the dedicatory prayer, Elder Nelson recounted: "Back in 1874, when maternal and infant mortality rates were very high, President Brigham Young urged a number of women to obtain medical degrees at eastern medical colleges. He said women must come forth as doctors within these valleys of the mountains."

He and other speakers identified Romania B. Pratt Penrose, Ellis R. Shipp, Ellen B. Ferguson, Elvira S. Barney and Martha Hughes Cannon as women who had responded to President Young's urging and received medical degrees.

"Meanwhile they had other important responsibilities," Elder Nelson noted. "Sister Penrose had five children; Sister Shipp had 10. Sister Cannon, who received her medical degree from the University of Michigan, became a Utah state senator, the first woman to be so elected in the history of the United States."

Later, as general president of the Relief Society, Eliza R. Snow with her associates importuned Church President John Taylor for a hospital. "He looked at their eager faces as he was confronted by these ardent women," Elder Nelson said.

" 'Sisters,' he said, 'your words might easily spring from my own heart, and I can hardly believe that you know the enormity of your suggestion.'

" 'I think we do,' the [Relief Society ] president said. So they got their hospital."

Elder Nelson said the facility was dedicated July 17, 1882. Located at first on Fifth East between South Temple and First South, it had 12 beds. In 1884, he said, the hospital was moved to Second North and Second West and was enlarged to a capacity of 50 beds. Eventually torn down in 1931, that is the structure now replicated at the park. It had been in succession a private residence, a hotel, an academy and the University of Deseret, forerunner to the University of Utah.

"They had a meager knowledge of infectious disease," Elder Nelson said. "Remember, this was before the days of Louis Pasteur and Robert Polk, who later published their work on identification of bacteria as the cause of specific infections. But distinctively, these ladies understood the value of compassionate service. They demonstrated the importance of showing love, patience and concern for their patients' emotional needs. They also learned that one's energy level is influenced greatly by mental attitude."

Lack of funds forced the hospital's closure in 1890, Elder Nelson said, though its nursing school would continue to function until the founding of the Dr. W.H. Groves LDS Hospital in 1905.

Dr. Novello, currently New York State Commissioner of Health, cited 1 Corinthians 13:13, "And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity." Charity, she said, was at the fore of the hospital's dedication 121 years ago.

"The dedication of the first Deseret Hospital was the germination of a seed planted by several women in the Church who saw a great need in the community at that time and responded to that need even in the presence of great obstacles," she said.

A shortage of physicians in the 1800s was exacerbated by prevailing attitudes, she noted. "The common approach to treating medical problems by the doctors in Salt Lake was 'puke them, purge them or bleed them.' "

But, she said, by mid-century things were beginning to change, and Brigham Young saw the need for selected women to arm themselves with medical training.

"Now if women were able to spring forth at that time as women, not to mention as physicians, it truly would have been a miracle," she said, noting that women had no voice in government or higher education and no right to vote. Yet these women obtained medical degrees. Later the hospital, under the direction of the Relief Society, "featured a home-like atmosphere, the latest surgical equipment from New York and a staff of well-trained, mostly female, physicians." It served patients regardless of their ability to pay, she added.

Dr. George J. Van Komen of Collegium Aesculapiam, an association of Latter-day Saint physicians, said, "By having this beautiful Deseret Hospital in our community, today's and tomorrow's physicians will have a visible reminder that, above all, medicine is a calling in which the doctor-patient relationship continues to require the human touch." Reflecting on the medical care rendered at the hospital, "we will come to understand that medicine is and will always remain a compassionate service-rendering profession," he added.

Dr. Novello evinced a familiarity with and affinity for Latter-day Saint heritage and culture. Sister Christensen asked her to hold up her hand, on which she was wearing a CTR ring. When they were serving in Church hosting, the Christensens had gotten to know Dr. Novello when she visited Salt Lake City and met with the First Presidency. "They said to her, 'What can we do for you?' She said, 'I'd like a CTR ring.' You can imagine how they reacted to that! But she said, 'I'm in a position where I have to make so many decisions, and I need all the help I can get.' "


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