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A History of Ohio Valley Medical Center

Photos provided by Ohio County Public Library An early photograph shows City Hospital, the forerunner to Ohio Valley Medical Center, in Wheeling. This image is from the W.C. Brown Collection, housed in the archives of the Ohio County Public Library.

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from a talk given by Jeanne Finstein of Wheeling to Ohio Valley Medical Center’s auxiliary at its final luncheon on May 23, 2017. The auxiliary disbanded after OVMC was purchased by Alecto Healthcare Services as a for-profit hospital on June 1, 2017. OVMC closed its doors on Sept. 4.

WHEELING — After the recent closure of Ohio Valley Medical Center, it seems appropriate to take a few minutes to look at the history of the hospital.

A very brief history is printed in the West Virginia Encyclopedia, stating that the hospital began as City Hospital on Jan. 1, 1890, following an initiative by Wheeling women’s groups led by women of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. City Hospital took quarters in the former Wheeling Female Seminary and officially opened to patients in 1892. The associated Training School for Nurses opened the same year as the first nursing school in the state.

This brief history was the start of my research into the hospital’s past. We already know a lot about the history of Wheeling Hospital from Margaret Brennan’s research, and Kate Quinn found interesting information about one of the private hospitals of the time, but it appears that no in-depth study has been done of OV. But before we go deeper, let’s take a look at what Wheeling was like at the time the hospital was begun.

The population from the 1890 census was 34,522 — and didn’t yet include Elm Grove, Woodsdale or Warwood. It was a bustling, industrial community.

The city already had a well-established hospital, Wheeling Hospital, that had been founded by the Catholic Church before the Civil War — more than 30 years before the City Hospital was begun. Wheeling Hospital had in place a government contract to care for sick and injured marines and another with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to provide for sick and injured employees. However, one report stated that it did not have a “regular medical and surgical staff, nor any special provision for charity cases.”

Private hospitals were also available, probably primarily for those who could afford them.

So why was another hospital needed, and who were the women who pushed for it? A reflection on the hospital, written in the Dec. 22, 1894, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association stated that the goal was to provide “more liberally for the treatment of the sick poor” and that it was “unselfishly organized and conducted solely for the public good.”

Hospital histories merely refer to “a group of women,” or “the hospital 10,” whose actual names aren’t mentioned, who were advocates of a “Protestant” hospital. (Interestingly, as the hospital project evolved, the term Protestant wasn’t found in newspaper articles, and several prominent members of the Jewish community were later in leadership positions.) A search of old Wheeling Intelligencer newspapers provided some background. The Nov. 22, 1889 issue of the paper referred to “‘The Hospital Ten” of the King’s Daughters of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, and other credited members of the Women’s Union Benevolent Society, President Mrs. W.F. (Ann Bates) Butler and secretary Mrs. W.J.W. (Lucy McClure) Cowden. Committee members of the society were listed as Mrs. R.W. (Mary Elizabeth Hobbs) Hazlett, Mrs. H.W. (Lillie) List and Mrs. C.B. Briscoe. The names of the other members of “The Hospital Ten” weren’t found.

By Jan. 11, 1890, the paper announced that the state had issued a certificate of incorporation to the City Hospital Association of Wheeling, with the incorporators listed as William A. Wilson, William E. Stifel, Morris Horkheimer, R. Rush Swope and Henry M. Russell. The capital stock was placed at $100,000, and the shares were $25 each.

By April 12, 1890, a board of directors was established, with the officers named: Henry M. Russell, president; the Rev. Dr. R. Rush Swope, vice president; Alfred Paull, treasurer; and Lawrence Sands, secretary.

N.B. Scott was named to the board, following the resignation of Augustus Pollack. The same article refers to the “Ladies Hospital Association” and states that that group had raised nearly all of the money needed to acquire and remodel the former Wheeling Female Seminary for use as the hospital. The seminary, which had been founded in 1848, was selected over other options as the ideal location, being located “high above the noise and dirt of the city.”

Private rooms were furnished by various church and civic groups and by individuals. Henry K. List, Samuel S. Bloch and George E. House were among those named as contributing rooms. The operating room was reported to be “thoroughly fitted up with the best appliances, and is said to be superior to anything of the kind in Pittsburgh, or even perhaps in Cincinnati.”

The hospital was opened for a public tour on Feb. 9, 1892. The newspaper reported that “expressions of admiration were heard on all sides … and more than one thought it would be pleasant to be sick and occupy one of the cheerful apartments. … While the unprofessional visitors admired chiefly the beautiful furnishings of the wards and private rooms, the medical men went into ecstasies over the operating room. The table on which the patient is strapped preparatory to having a leg or arm taken off, was inspected by the doctors and wheeled about the room, the physicians’ instruments coming in for their share of the professional admiration. … There are over 200 instruments, all of the latest design.”

On opening day, visitors were asked to bring a pound of something that could possibly be used by the hospital. Donations included a variety of food items and a pound of silver dollars, 17 in number (worth about $460 today) and several pounds of coins of lesser denominations. An anonymous donation of $500 (over $13,000) was also announced.

One of the speakers at the opening event was Dr. S.L. Jepson. “He said that there was not as much prejudice today as formerly against hospitals. Some time ago when a man was sent to a hospital it was thought he was sent there to die. Today the hospitals have many advantages over homes in the matter of nursing and medical attention. Patients are also free from numerous and annoying visitors, visitors who told doleful stories, which was anything but stimulating to the sick person.”

The hospital opened for patients the same day, Feb. 9, 1892. Three patients were admitted that day, and a fourth was expected “in a day or two, application having been made on his behalf.” The total capacity of the facility was 100 patients.

Prices in the wards were shown as $5 per week (the equivalent of about $135 today) or for private rooms $10 and upward per week (about $272). Charges included medicine.

The paper stated that “pupil nurses” would soon be accepted. “Applicants for this position must be between the ages of 22 and 30 years and procure recommendations from their physician and clergyman as to health, ability and character.”

Committees included finance: chairman S.S. Bloch, W.F. Stifel H.F. Behrens, W.A. Wilson; property: chairman Howard Hazlett, Henry M. Russell, Lawrence E. Sands; executive: chairman N.B. Scott, Morris Horkheimer, Alfred Paull, R. Rush Swope, president pastor of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church.

An 1899 article in The Womans’ Easter Herald reported that the building was thoroughly equipped with electric bells, through the kindness of Mrs. H. C. Franzheim, and porches were added to the north end of the building by Mrs. John K. List. Henry K. List had paid for an elevator, and Mrs. J.N. Vance had refurnished the women’s ward. Other rooms had been furnished by the Wheeling Medical Society, Mrs. Samuel Laughlin and Mrs. B. Walker Peterson.

Over the ensuing years, the hospital buildings changed and additions were made. The original nurses’ home was constructed in 1904. In 1911, the original 60-bed building was declared unsafe and was razed the following year.

The new 154-bed health center, designed by architect Edward F. Stevens, was opened in 1914. A sum of $10,000 [the equivalent of over $260,000 today] was pledged to the endowment fund at that time from the estate of J.N. Vance.

By the mid-1920s, a new program to replace the nurses’ residence and to enlarge the hospital to a capacity of 275 beds was begun. In 1928, the Bloch Residence for nurses was completed to house 135 nurses.

Over the years, the facility expanded to the large complex that we know now. In May 1953, a major building program was announced that would lead to the construction of the East and South wings and renovation of the main building.

A public solicitation for funds brought in $1,911,638. The largest bequests were from the H. Fred and Estella Behrens estate for $1.2 million (over $11 million today) and the William M. Tiernan estate for $464,000 (over $4 million today).

The total cost of the project was $6 million (nearly $54 million today), with the remainder of the necessary funds secured under provisions of the Hill-Burton Act and the Ford Foundation. This expansion resulted in a capacity of 434 beds and 49 bassinets.

In 1961, the $1.5 million, five-story addition to the Bloch Nurses’ Residence was completed. (That cost would be over $12 million today.) By 1988, however, the School of Nursing closed when the evolution of the profession of nursing progressed to a college academic setting.

In 1962, Ohio Valley General Hospital became a teaching hospital, adding to the capabilities for patient care and providing post-graduate education of physicians in certain specialties.

That same year, the Urban Renewal Authority announced a plan to acquire land adjacent to the hospital for clearance and future development. The $1.7 million Education and Administration building was completed in 1972 and included classrooms and a 250-seat amphitheater. A year later, the name was changed from Ohio Valley General Hospital to Ohio Valley Medical Center. A four-story mental health building was added by late 1974. The newest building, an eight-story, 200-bed patient tower, was dedicated in 1980.

Throughout the first 125 years of the facility, auxiliary groups played an important role. An early benefit, held in January 1894, was a play given at the old Opera House.

Fifteen “twigs” were organized in 1915, with a stated purpose of sewing and providing funds for linens and other hospital needs. In 1943, the Red Cross organized its Gray Lady group, with an aim to assist the hospital in volunteer services.

A 1957 volunteer movement was organized by nurse Kitty Wells. Their goal was not to take the place of any paid employees, but to “make it possible for the patient to have some additional attention, thus relieving the nurses of simple chores, giving them more time for critical situations.”

By 1971, the auxiliary included all twigs and other adults, totaling more than 1,000 volunteers. A listing of twigs in 1980 stated that since 1967, there had been 50 to 55 twigs in active service at all times. The volunteer groups raised tens of thousands of dollars over the years in support of the hospital.

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