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A Hospital That Made History and Preserved It

St. Vincent’s Medical Center is Los Angeles’ oldest hospital and, in the midst of its sprawling, palm-dotted campus, sits a six-story building, home to the Daughters of Charity, the families of out-of-town patients and the only history center and museum of its kind in the West.

What began five years ago as Sister Helen Carmody’s personal rescue of dumpster-bound memorabilia is now a 3,000-square-foot repository, research center and museum that encompasses the history of medicine in Los Angeles.

The archives spell out in detail the early workings of the medical center, which began nearly 150 years ago as the “County Hospital,” established by six Roman Catholic nuns with contributions from Jewish, Protestant and Catholic pioneers.

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The Daughters of Charity--known as “God’s Geese” because of their wing-like white wimples--not only dispensed medicine, but also kept good records. They kept tabs on the area’s growth and took special note of scourges such as the smallpox epidemic in 1863 and a typhoid outbreak in 1905.

Tattered papers, old photographs and leather-bound ledgers filled with elegant, handwritten script sketch other ailments that afflicted many Angelenos, such as chronic beriberi--a vitamin B-1 deficiency-- diphtheria, cholera, grippe and constipation.

Most compelling are the records of early doctors who built their lives and reputations in Los Angeles.

The documents tell the stories of Los Angeles’ first medical doctor, Richard Sommerset Den in 1844; hospital staff member John S. Griffin, a Confederate surgeon and land baron who owned the property where Los Angeles County-USC Hospital now stands and for whom Griffin Avenue is named; Dr. Rebecca Lee Dorsey, who persevered to become the world’s first endocrinologist; and the Paulette medical clan, which provided St. Vincent’s with its chiefs of staff for three generations.

Before liposuction, tummy tucks and breast implants, there was Dr. Charles George Dawley, a 1903 graduate of USC Medical School, who experimented, improvised and invented.

In the early teens, young German immigrant Elizabeth Kummer arrived in Los Angeles, sponsored by a German club. She no longer had a nose, just two holes to breathe through. As a child in a German orphanage, she had been struck across the face with a heavy leather belt that damaged her nose, right cheek and eye. An infection caused her nose to decompose, and subsequently she ventured out only in heavily veiled hats.

After Dawley performed reconstructive surgery and several skin grafts, Kummer appeared to heal inside and out. She later married twice. She died in Los Angeles at the age of 104.

Dr. William Molony was a throwback to a time when the family doctor knew where you lived because he’d been there. In 1967, at the age of 88, Molony was still making house calls for $7.50.

“I practiced every kind of medicine there is or was: pediatrics, brain surgery, obstetric. You mention it, my partner, Dr. Francis Anton, and I--we did it. Seven days a week, up to 20 hours a day.” he told Parade magazine in 1967.

Back in the 1930s and ‘40s, Molony was known to ride his bicycle to visit a patient after the trolley lines shut down at 7 p.m. At times, he offered free curbside consultations.

Documents in the museum trace the hospital’s history to 1856, when six Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul--the French-born “apostle of the poor"--arrived on the passenger steamer Sea Bird and waded ashore at San Pedro.

The Board of Supervisors temporarily rented the sisters a four-room adobe near the pueblo, where the nuns hunkered down under the direction of Sister Ann Gillen and began their mission of mercy, caring for the sick and poor on eight cots.

Seeking larger quarters, the sisters soon purchased a five-acre parcel at Macy and Alameda streets, where Union Station now stands. Tirelessly, they pursued various business ventures to support the hospital. They picked fruit from their 300 trees and sold grapes from 6,000 vines they tended next to an orphanage and school they ran. They also raised cattle they branded with the letters S and C. (The nuns’ nickname had become the Sisters of Charity.)

Within the first seven months, records show, 52 county patients and 11 private patients were admitted; 10 died.

Soon they moved again, to the city’s cornfield at North Main Street and San Fernando Road.

The nuns believed they were doing God’s work, but the earthly rules imposed by the local Catholic bishop, Thaddeus Amat, were getting in the way. Amat particularly wanted their growing properties put in his name--a common demand in late 19th century America, where all the Catholic bishops were struggling to bring the enterprises of immigrant nuns and priests from all over the world under local control.

But rather than bow to his wishes, the self-reliant sisters formed a corporation in 1869 and became the Los Angeles Infirmary.

The Sisters of Charity paid $10,000 for 6.5 acres at Sunset Boulevard and Beaudry Avenue. Three years before they moved into the fortress-like hospital, in 1884, Sister Ann--their formidable superior--retired. Ann Street was named for her.

On Jan. 22, 1927, a predawn blaze sent thick black smoke swirling through the hospital as 127 patients slept. As fire swept the upper floors of the wood-frame hospital, Director Sister Mary Ann and telephone operator Josephine Tracy, along with the other nuns, helped move all the patients, including 28 newborns, to safety.

“Although directly above Tracy the flames were roaring and crackling and the noise of shattered glass reached her ears, Tracy . . . stuck to her post . . . until all outside connections were burned away. Even then she did not desert her post, but stood by, assisting the nuns and firemen,” a reporter wrote.

Ten months later, a 250-bed, eight-story Italian Renaissance brick building--the hospital’s fifth site--opened at 3rd and Alvarado streets. It had a staff of 25 executive and 75 associate physicians and 100 nurses.

The St. Vincent Medical Center Historical Conservancy and its two archivists, Ken McGuire and Bret Arena, are hosting an exhibit, “On the Wings of Angels,” which documents how, in early Los Angeles, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish immigrants pulled together to meet the most basic human needs.


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