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The Historical Role of Women in the Creation and Growth of the Children’s Hospital of Buffalo–Part 2

Women Health Professionals Working Together

WHPEFOur last post outlined the history of our philanthropic advocacy group (the founding members and first program at the left).  While proud we were, we were no match for the women who started the Children’s Hospital of Buffalo.  Their story enlightens and energizes, even in the face of near ruin.  As women physicians, whatever our personal challenges, we must always reach out and become involved in the higher destiny of those whom we serve.

The Women Health Professionals Endowment Fund built and supplied the “lactation station” for any woman in the hospital who came back to work and wanted to continue to breast feed, funded research fellowships and lectures.  We were recognized by the NOW “Women Helping Women” award and we established a monthly breakfast meeting with the women of the hospital board and inserted ourselves on some important committees.

But with the hospital merging into a larger entity (1999) and the battle to Save the Children’s Hospital (2002), the energies put into the The Women Health Professionals Endowment Fund were redirected and finally the fund subsumed into the larger endowment.  Those seven years were invigorating and there were no regrets for what we had tried to do.

No time?  No energy?  No excuse.  When you are part of something bigger than yourself, the energy you take in is so much greater than that you give out.  And so it goes when we choose to serve.

And now for Part 2, excerpted from the first annual meeting keynote speech by historian and activist, Libby Sholes.

“THE HISTORY OF THE CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL OF BUFFALO: A Reflection of Women’s Roles in America

In 1892, it was announced in the Buffalo Medical Journal that a group of citizens had plans to form a cholera infantum hospital in the Buffalo vicinity.  However, at the same time, a group of thirteen women, initially accompanied by six men, had already created a new institution, the Children’s Hospital of Buffalo.  On May 23, 1892, these 19 individuals signed the articles of incorporation to begin the creation of a hospital for the treatment of “sick, injured and crippled” children.  For the thirteen women involved, the act of signing a corporate document represented a major step forward not just for the hospital, but for women.  They were exercising a hard-fought right–the right for women to sign contracts on their own behalf without the permission of a male relative.

In 1848 following the Seneca Falls Convention and again in 1862, the state of new York had been forced under pressure from its female citizens, to revise and amend the eviscerating property laws binding women to their male relatives.  In 1862, new york women finally regained authority over their own property in a new series of statues passed by the state legislature which came to be called the married Women’s Property Act.  These laws returned autonomy to both married and single women living formerly under male dominance.

However, by 1892 when the hospital founders acted on their legal principles (now 30years old), it remained comparatively rare for women to exercise their economic and legal independence in public rather than private spheres.  By forming a charitable corporation, these 13 women were embarking on a bold new societal role.

Beyond the act of incorporation, these women, plus four others who joined them after, took yet another relatively rare step:  they set out to run the hospital themselves.  The composition of the first Board of Managers 1892-1893, was entirely female.  Among those involved were Ottilie Rochester whose husband was cashier of the Third National Bank; Elizabeth Parkhurst, wife of an attorney; Sara Truscott, daughter of a prominent grain trader; Mrs. George Lewis whose husband was president of a coal mining business; Margaret L.P. Adam, wife of the founder of AM&A’s; Ellen O. Watson whose husband was president of the Buffalo Railway Company; Frances Hunsicker whose husband was an investment banker; and Genevra Wheeler whose husband was the proprietor and headmaster of the Heathcote School, a prestigious private academy.  (Of course, these women are characterized vis-a-vis their husband’s or father’s status, as that was the main descriptor of women in those days).

No other women, however, figured more prominently that the Williamses.  Harriet Williams and her daughter, Martha Tenney Willimas, gave the house at 219 Bryant Street–now long demolished–that served capably as the first site of the new Children’s Hospital.  After refitting the building to function more adequately in the care of the sick, the two women leased the property to the hospital corporation of $1.00 until Martha Williams sold the house outright to the corporation following her mother’s death in 1893.  Martha Williams was to become the single most enduring and important factor in the expansion and growth of the hospital during its first quarter century, although she was unquestionably abetted by a stable cadre of equally remarkable and dedicated peers.

This was no band of idle do-gooders.  There simply was not room for dilettantes and those seeking ego-soothing acts of casual bounty.  The Board of Managers faced a daunting task in the summer of 1892 while preparing for the September opening and admission of the first 12 patients.  They had to equip the facility, hire the minimal staff, and pass what for their day, were fairly tough standars of cleanliness.

When the hospital opened on September 6, 1892, they had a staff of eight–a head nurse, five nurses-in-training, a housekeeper and a cook. That was the sum total of the permanent personnel.  Three attending male physicians  were available, but they had permanent appointments at the more prestigious Buffalo General Hospital, an arrangement that would last for decades at Children’s Hospital.

At opening, Children’s Hospital had absolutely no staff arrangements for the procurement of medical, housekeeping, administrative or other supplies.  There were no administrators, accountants or fundraisers.  There were no social services, no educational programs, no welfare workers–no anything.  In order for anything at all to be accomplished the 17 redoubtable women on the Board of Managers and other friends they recruited, supplied every stick of furniture, every bandage, every towel, every  bedpan, sheet, crib, apron, box of oap, disinfectant, mop, broom, pincushion and every morsel of food in the place–and they did so on a monthly basis.

By the next year, Martha Williams had provided an annex to accommodate the growing demand for be space.  Later additions to meet the expanding patient load were supplied by other women who provided not just the money from their own pockets, but who also directly oversaw the design and construction of “their” facility.

The women on the Board of Managers hired the women of the hospital staff.  From the outset, all of the Children’s Hospital staff were women.  The Director of Nursing was Miss Boswell (her first name has been lost to the sands of time), who was recruited to Buffalo from Boston City Hospital.  Beginning with 5 student nurses in 1892, she added 10 professional nurses the next year and oversaw the first class through their studies to graduation and employment in 1897.

By 1907, Children’s had a woman superintendent, Claire DCue, and had one of Buffalo’s first woman physicians, Dr. Harriet Coffin, on staff.

Perhaps because pediatrics was itself initially a peripheral specialty or perhaps because the Board of Managers was comprised of such significantly powerful women, the dominance of female control over Children’s Hospital persisted well into the 20th century.  All of the hospital’s superintendents, nursing and non-medical staffing remained exclusively female through the 1920’s .  It remained predominantly female for many years thereafter.

For the Centennial Celebration in 1992, Dr. Erika Bruk wrote a delightful monograph concerning one of Children’s more enduring powerhouses.  Ella Knapp was Director of the Records Room for over three decades, from the 1930’s through the 1950’s.  She wielded an iron hand over even the most senior physicians and was inclined to lie in wait for errant doctors to pass her door.  From this spot she would pull them into her office to upgrade their documentation–apparently with full compliance from those who realized thy had met their match.

Children’s Hospital, was a a very early period prior to World War I, fully open to children of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds.  From inception, one of the goals of the hospital was to have available free beds for children of limited means.  During the successive decades , the hospital added more extensive services to reach out to those communities that were in need with social workers, education and support for families.  It was among the first of the area hospitals to provide such opportunities with no racial or religious barriers.

The Board of Managers itself continued to be run by women through the 1960’s into the 1970’s.  These women were relentless in their drive to secure the best funding, the largest endowments, and the most up-to-date facilities for the institution.  While the days of direct donation of goods and services soon passed, the demand for money never subsided, and the Board of Managers oversaw massive fundraising projects several times a year.

These fundraisers created similar women’s groups in every corner of the city, quickly moving into minority communities as well as mainstream middle-class white areas to find and capitalize on the talents of women in every walk of life.  as early as the 1950’s hospital publicity photos reveal strong organization among and support from groups of African-American women who contributed vigorously and equitably to fund-raising campaigns.  This kind of expansion made possible the 1954 “Children’s Hour” crusade.  In one hour, children going door-to-door raised $145,000 for the hospital’s building fund.

In addition to the hospital’s own direct fund-raising operation which began in 1924 under the direction of two Board members, Mrs. Clinton Wycoff and Mrs. Frederick L. Pratt (their first names are lost to the sands of social convention), the hospital’s constituent women members had direct and personal ties to other women’s organizations.  The Red Cross and particularly the Junior League were the most involved with the Children’s Hospital.  These two organizations in turn raised substantial amounts of money over the decades and expanded the effectiveness of the networks of charitable activist women.

In the 1970’s however, the institution hit a huge financial downturn so severe that their were reports that this beloved facility might well close.  This was a plight common to many institutions in that decade, a time of wrenching change in  Buffalo.  It appears the the Board began to add men to its membership in significant numbers to begin tapping into the large sources of money available through corporate donations to which men unquestionably had better access.  Furthermore, in the era of new feminist awareness, equality on the Children’s Board meant that men needed to be represented.  So after nearly 80 years of women’s leadership, Children’s Hospital became more like other medical facilities, moving with the demands of growth and money away from its roots and toward a more bureaucratic and more male-oriented form of operation.

The Claire DeCues of the world on Bryant Street have given way to trained professional hospital administrators.  Initially, these were exclusively male, although more recently there has been female representation in the upper ranks of the hospital administration.  Members of both genders sit on the hospital’s Board.  Women now account for more than half of the pediatricians trained at Children’s Hospital, and there is not a department in the hospital which does not have female physicians (sic).  The professional nursing staff remains overwhelmingly female, and women pH.D.’s care for children in a variety of settings.  women function as social workers, nutritionists, lab technicians, and in a wide range of activities critical to the functioning of the hospital.

Yet somehow, we have the sense that there is a unique female perspective to the care of women and children which is reflected less in the daily operations of Children’s Hospital in the current era than it was 100 years ago.  Perhaps this is as a result of the shift from medicine as a “good work” to medicine as a business. Unquestionably, good business sense is essential to the financial health of the hospital.  Yet with massive federal cuts looming in front of us, we must have renewed concern about the future of children’s health in Buffalo.  We must accept the need for a fiscally sound hospital, yet also recognize that a Children’s Hospital will always have needs above and beyond those of an adult hospital:  infants will need more supervision than adults, toddler’s rooms will need to be cleaned more often, young children and adolescents will have worries and fears which should be soothed, young parents with ill children will need financial and social supports, and on and on.  Our dedication to building an endowment is our way of serving both these purposes.

We hope that 100 years from now, our daughters will have the same resolve to continue our work as we have to continue the work of the women of the original Board of Managers of The Children’s Hospital of Buffalo.”



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