The Origin of Denver Health Medical Center

Honoring the People Who Created What We've Inherited

Denver's First Hospital

On May 30, 1854, the Kansas Territory was created. Denver City and much of the central part of Colorado's Front Range were in the Kansas Territory's Arapahoe County — but other parts of present-day Colorado were in the Nebraska, New Mexico, Utah, and Washington territories.

Note that "Denver City" was shortened to "Denver" in 1867, when it became capital of the Colorado Territory, and that Denver was in Arapahoe County until 1902, when a consolidated City and County of Denver was created by the Colorado General Assembly.

In 1913, Dr. Lewis E. Lemen wrote about the origin of Denver's first hospital:

Late in 1859, about two years before the Government of the Colorado Territory was fully established, Dr. Drake McDowell recognized the need for a hospital in Denver, chiefly for the purpose of affording better facilities for treating cases of injury by accident, and brought it to the attention of the Directors of the Denver City Town Company, who were managing the general affairs of the part of pioneer Denver that was situated on the eastward side of Cherry Creek. . .

on December 26, 1859, they "resolved," on motion of Richard E. Whitsitt, the Company's Secretary, that "a Committee of three be appointed Consisting of Messrs. [Amos] Steck, [A.J.] Williams and [P.E.] Peers to wait on Doctor McDowell in Relation to City Hospital." ("The Medical Profession in Colorado," pp. 671-672)

A hospital was opened in Denver in June 1860, and although Dr. Drake McDowell used it at least once for surgery, he does not seem to have been officially associated with it.

In 1860, Dr. John F. Hamilton — a 29-year-old native of Litchfield, Connecticut, who had received his MD from Rush Medical College in Chicago in 1854 — arrived in Denver City. Dr. Hamilton had been practicing in Chicago, but came to Colorado by wagon train because of his health. Not long after he arrived, the city's first recorded smallpox outbreak was the occasion for Dr. Hamilton's appointment as the first (unpaid) city physician.

On May 13, 1860, Dr. Oscar David Cass — a 36-year-old native of Lyman, New Hampshire, who had received his MD from the Vermont Medical College in 1845 — arrived in Denver City from Leavenworth, Kansas. In less than a month, he had become physician-in-charge of the second hospital in Denver City.

The sources raise questions about the number and location of hospitals in Denver in 1860.

There's not much doubt about the city hospital that Drs. Hamilton and Cass ran, but it's been also been said that there was another hospital that was away from populated areas — a log cabin near what is now 7th Avenue and Lawrence Street on the Auraria Campus. Dr. A.R. Sternberger or Dr. C.M. Steinberger have been named as being in charge, and the cabin was said by some to have originally belonged to Doc Levi Russell. Verifiable facts may never become available.

Louie Croft Boyd — who received her RN in 1899 from the Colorado Training School for Nurses at Arapahoe County Hospital — was apparently the first to mention the hospital in a cabin at 7th and Lawrence. Although she didn't identify her sources for the West Denver hospital, her account was followed by others. (Her 18-page "History of the Denver General Hospital Denver, Colorado, 1860-1924," is only available as a typewritten manuscript.)

The first recorded smallpox outbreak in Denver was the occasion for the appointment of the first (unpaid) city physician, John F. Hamilton, MD. His mandate was to prevent epidemics.

In mid-June, 1860, a City Hospital opened near Wazee and G (later 16th Street) in Denver. The hospital opened during that relatively minor smallpox epidemic just mentioned.

In an advertisement of the hospital it was said that "competent nurses have been secured," and that "application for admission may be made at the office of Drs. Hamilton or Cass on Blake Street." This institution had been established by a corporation or association of citizens. . . . (Lewis E. Lemen, "The Medical Profession in Colorado," pg. 672)

The Rocky Mountain News (June 20, 1860): "The City Hospital is a new institution that deserves assistance and encouragement of every good citizen. Its projectors deserve the highest praise and unbound success."

There were ads in the Rocky Mountain News on June 20 and June 27, 1860, for "City Hospital, Dr. J.F. Hamilton, Surgeon, Dr. O.D. Cass, Physician" that said that Mr. Bennett was the warden, that there were competent nurses, and that it was located on what was then 16th Street below Blake.

Denver's City Hospital closed in late November 1860, after Drs. Cass and Hamilton each decided to go his own way. Dr. Oscar Cass went into business with his brother Joseph B. Cass, and when the Civil War broke out in the spring of 1861, Dr. John Hamilton joined the 1st Colorado Volunteer Infantry.

William H. Bennet, the warden of City Hospital, quickly opened the Hotel for Invalids, which may have been Denver's first tuberculosis sanatorium, at that same location. The following advertisement appeared in the Rocky Mountain News on November 27, 1860:


The subscriber, who has had charge of the "City Hospital" since its commencement, has his house now free for the reception of Invalid guests. Such as may need, besides the care of their physician, good nursing and attention, will find at his house their want supplied. Private rooms can be had when desired; and the house is roomy, well situated, with good ventilation.

He refers to certificates below of Physicians who have had patients under treatment at his house. No one received unless at the request of their Physician.

Wm. H. Bennet
G and Wazee sts, East Denver

The undersigned can bear witness to the attention and care that invalids have received at the hands of Mr. and Mrs. Wm. H. Bennet, and unhesitatingly recommend their house for the purpose to which it is now designed.

W.D. Turner, M.D.
A.F. Peck, M.D.
S.E. Kennedy, M.D.
D. McDowell, M.D.
J. Bell, M.D.
J.J. Saville, M.D.

J.F. Hamilton, M.D.
O.D. Cass, M.D.
Wm. Belt, M.D.
A. Ward, M.D.
H.H. Beals, M.D.
E.G. Arnold, M.D.

Arapahoe County Hospital

In May 1873 Dr. John Elsner, the Arapahoe County physician, opened the new Arapahoe County Poor House and Almshouse, which was also Denver's hospital, admitting 189 patients during its first year. The new facility was on the southeast corner of 8th and Cheyenne (which became Cherokee), the eventual location of Denver General Hospital, which became today's Denver Health Medical Center.

On May 5, 1873, contractor George W. Smith began construction on a new $4,000 hospital.

In 1880, a new Arapahoe County Hospital opened at 6th and Cherokee in Denver. The facility included separate cottages for people with "loathsome diseases" like syphilis, typhoid, and other contagious diseases.

Denver City and County Hospital

In November 1911, Arapahoe County Hospital was turned over to the City and County of Denver and renamed Denver City and County Hospital in 1912. It had 333 patients, and operating costs were $96,553. Denver's population was now more than 200,000.

Denver General Hospital

In January 1924, Denver City and County Hospital became Denver General Hospital, which had been completely renovated. All health and charitable offices were moved from City Hall and consolidated at Denver General, which was accredited in 1924 by the American College of Surgeons and the American Medical Association.

In 1971, Denver General Hospital completed its new $12.5 million, nine-story hospital at 8th Avenue and Bannock Street.

In 1992, Patricia A. Gabow, MD, director of the Denver General Hospital medical service since 1981 and deputy manager of medical affairs since 1989, became CEO of Denver General Hospital.

Denver Health Medical Center

In 1997, the Denver Health and Hospital Authority became independent from the City of Denver and began operating as a political subdivision of the State of Colorado, responsible to a governing board appointed by the mayor of Denver and confirmed by the Denver city council.

This move gave Denver Health its own personnel and purchasing system and the ability to expand its grant applications and medical partnerships. It could also now establish its own fundraising foundation. Patricia A. Gabow, MD, CEO of the Denver Department of Health and Hospitals since 1992, now became CEO of Denver Health.

In 1997, Denver General Hospital changed its name to Denver Health Medical Center, which became the flagship institution of the Denver Health system, which is increasingly cited as an example of how healthcare providers can reduce costs while increasing patient safety and overall quality of care.


Denver Health: 150 Years of Level One Care for ALL. Denver Health, 2010.

Katherine Llewellyn Hill: A History of Public Health in Denver, 1859-1900. A Thesis Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Denver, In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Master of Arts. August 1970. A carefully researched resource for detailed information about public health, broadly understood, in early Denver — an indispensable guide through the period she covers.

Lewis E. Lemen, AM, MD: "The Medical Profession in Colorado," Chapter XXXI in Jerome C. Smiley: Semi-Centennial History of the State of Colorado, pp. 666-684. Chicago and New York: Lewis Publishing Company, 1913. Dr. Lemen includes some of the founding documents of the Denver Medical Association and the Colorado Territorial Medical Society (1871), and he chronicles their early meetings. http://bit.ly/OwHrPb

Eileen Welsome: Healers and Hellraisers: Denver Health's First 150 Years. Denver: Denver Health Foundation, 2011.

Contact book [at] coloradohealthcarehistory [dot] com or @ColoradoHealth on Twitter with additions, corrections, suggestions, or for more information. Thank you!

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