The Origin of National Jewish Health, Denver, Colorado
Honoring the People Who Created What We've Inherited
Denver's Need for a Hospital for Those Who Could Not Pay
In 1872, Frances Wisebart Jacobs — a 29-year-old native of Harrodsburg, Kentucky — began caring for Denver's critically ill people who were poor and malnourished, with everything made worse by their unsanitary living conditions. Many Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe were among those with tuberculosis who lived in the homeless camps on the banks of the Platte River — the "bottoms." Because of crime and the lack of sanitation, that may have been the most dangerous part of Denver. West Colfax also had more than its share of homeless people.
Frances Jacobs took the Colorado pioneer tradition of neighborliness to a completely new level by seeking out Denver's most neglected residents in the roughest part of town. She was a community organizer, but she was also very much a hands-on caregiver.
She gave Denver's homeless sick people soup, clothing, soap, and coal, and she didn't hesitate to help people who collapsed in the streets, hemorrhaging from tuberculosis. Some of Denver's most prominent physicians made themselves available to accompany Frances Jacobs when she went to the Platte River bottoms or West Colfax.
In 1889, Rabbi William Sterne Friedman — a 21-year-old native of Chicago who had graduated from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati — became the leader of Denver's Congregation Emanuel, which at that point had a membership of fewer than fifty families.
In his September 1889 Rosh Hashanah sermon, Rabbi Friedman called for the establishment of a sanitarium for destitute people with tuberculosis.
1890 —The Jewish Hospital Association of Colorado
Frances Wisebart Jacobs collaborated with Rabbi William Sterne Friedman of Denver's Temple Emanuel and the others who incorporated the Jewish Hospital Association of Colorado on April 8, 1890.
On June 5, 1890, the Jewish Hospital Association of Colorado bought twelve lots in the Capitol Avenue Subdivision on East Colfax from the Chamberlain Investment Company. The price was $7,500.
On October 9, 1892, the Jewish Hospital Association of Colorado laid the cornerstone of its new hospital on East Colfax Avenue and Colorado Boulevard. The next day, the Rocky Mountain News reported that
"The exercises yesterday were attended by several thousand people of all denominations, and the cable and electric car lines were taxed to full capacity, while the route to the site was lined with carriages."
On November 3, 1892, Frances Wisebart Jacobs died of pneumonia at age 49. Her funeral, conducted by Rabbi William Sterne Friedman and three prominent Christian clergymen, was attended by more than 4,000 people including Colorado Governor John Routt and Denver Mayor Platt Rogers.
In 1893, the Jewish Hospital Association of Colorado completed its new $42,000 tuberculosis sanatorium and called it the Frances Jacobs Hospital for Consumptives. But because the nationwide silver crisis recession meant that funding was no longer available, the hospital didn't actually open until 1899, when in consideration of the nationwide funding it had been receiving, it was called the National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives.
Financing the New Hospital during Difficult Financial Times
The Panic of 1893 was caused by economic overexpansion generally, and more specifically by railroad overbuilding and shaky railroad financing, which when it all fell apart caused a series of bank failures.
The crash of the New York stock market on June 27, 1893 was followed by four years of serious economic depression, which until the Great Depression of the 1930s was the nation's worst. Depositors mobbed Denver's banks on July 18, 1893. Falling prices for goods and services, coupled with high unemployment, were the principal results of the Panic.
Marion D. Van Horn, the mayor of Denver from 1893 until 1895, had to try to stabilize Denver during the Silver Depression, which not only affected the city's economy, but which also saw a large number of newly unemployed miners moving into Denver.
Healthcare institutions all over Colorado suffered because of the 1893 panic and demonetization, but hospitals in mining towns were particularly affected due to a sharp decline in revenue. Many miners who lost their jobs went to Denver, where railroads were offering reduced fares to those who wanted to leave Colorado.
Denver city officials encouraged the building and expansion of healthcare facilities, which they thought could bring new revenue into the city during the hard times, particularly if lung diseases were treated.
In March, 1895, B'nai B'rith's District Grand Lodge No. 2 held its annual convention in Toledo, Ohio. Louis Anfenger of Denver was president, and his remarks included the following:
"Our Brother Jacob Furth. . . has wisely called the attention of the Order to the Hospital erected by the Jewish Hospital Association, of Denver, Colorado. It clearly expresses my sentiments upon a subject, which is sooner or later to become of national importance to American Jews, and which will require financial assistance from the country at large, to make it the charitable institution which its founders intended it to be."
Jacob Furth had written in his report that
"Denver does not need a Hospital for its local sick, but a sanatorium such as this is needed by the country at large and should receive the liberal support of an Order such as ours.
A committee appointed by District Grand Lodge No. 2 recommended referring the matter of support for a Jewish hospital in Denver to the national B'nai B'rith. In 1898, District Grand Lodge No. 2 recommended that local B'nai B'rith lodges in its district voluntarily support the Jewish Hospital Association of Colorado, and they did.
We tax our members for the support of Orphan asylums, for Homes and Libraries, why cannot we tax them to a limited extent for the support of an institution which, by the work that it is destined to do, must necessarily become national? Our brethren in Colorado have assumed this burden, and in my opinion they should not be allowed to carry it alone and unassisted."
The Colorado Medical Journal for October, 1897, reported this:
"A movement is on foot for the re-opening of the Francis (sic) Jacobs' Hospital on the Montclair Line. It is being instigated by the Jewish Woman's Club, of Denver, which is well known for its ability to perfect plans for any charitable undertaking. It is their intention to have it opened as a charitable hospital for consumptives."
The National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives
Beginning on Sunday, December 10, 1899, the 60-bed National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives — Denver's first tuberculosis treatment center — was dedicated during three days of ceremonies at East Colfax Avenue and Colorado Boulevard. Colorado Governor Charles S. Thomas, Denver Mayor Henry V. Johnson — who paid tribute to the late Frances Wisebart Jacobs — and clergy from various denominations attended the ceremonies.
During the dedication ceremonies, Samuel Grabfelder of Louisville, Kentucky — the president of the National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives board from 1899 until his death in April 1920 — said that
"Jews and Gentiles have alike been faithful in the work of ameliorating the conditions of humanity. Without arrogance, however, I may be allowed to say that nowhere else is there a sanatorium devoted exclusively to the treatment of pulmonary diseases for the purpose of administering alone to those who are unable by reason of poverty, to purchase treatment of relief. . . .
This philosophy was reiterated in 1904: the National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives "was erected and is maintained for the poor, irrespective of their creed, for those only, of whatever nationality or faith, who have not the means to procure in other institutions the care and treatment their condition requires."
"Our facilities and services will be given only to the poor who are unable to purchase relief. The well to do find no difficulty in securing the best skill and most lavish surroundings, but the poor are unable to do so, and to them we say 'Enter and ye shall be welcome'" (emphasis added).
The motto of the National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives was "None who can pay enter — None who enter pay." National Jewish was a fundamentally humanitarian institution.
The name and mission of National Jewish evolved over the years:
In 1946, the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, speaking of National Jewish Hospital at Denver, said this:
- 1893 — Frances Jacobs Hospital for Consumptives
- 1899 — National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives
- 1925 — National Jewish Hospital at Denver
- 1965 — National Jewish Hospital and Research Center
- 1978 — National Jewish Hospital / National Asthma Center
- 1985 — National Jewish Center for Immunology and Respiratory Medicine
- 1997 — National Jewish Medical and Research Center
- 2008 — National Jewish Health
"I know of no other institution in this country which has contributed more fundamentally to our knowledge of tuberculosis. Through its research, publications, and teaching it exerts an influence far out of proportion to its present size and equipment."
Jeanne E. Abrams: Blazing the Tuberculosis Trail: The Religio-Ethnic Role of Four Sanatoria in Early Denver. Denver: Colorado Historical Society, 1991. The quote from Mr. Grabfelder's remarks at the dedication is from this book, pages 20-21.
Milton Louis Anfenger: Birth of a Hospital: The Story of the Birth of the National Jewish Hospital in Denver, Colorado. Denver, 1942. 78 pages. A helpful collection of primary documents and commentaries on them by the son of one of the founders of National Jewish. The quotes (above) from remarks made by Louis Anfenger and Jacob Furth are from this book.
Mary Ann Fitzharris: A Place to Heal: The History of National Jewish Medical and Research Center. Denver: National Jewish Medical and Research Center, 1989. A valuable compendium of the historical facts, including a detailed timeline.
Mary Ann Fitzharris and Jeanne E. Abrams: A Place to Heal: The History of National Jewish Medical and Research Center: Global Leader in Lung, Allergic and Immune Diseases. Denver: National Jewish Medical and Research Center, 1997.
Rabbi William Friedman: "Modern Methods of Fighting Tuberculosis: What the National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives is Doing." Address to the National Jewish Chautauqua Society, 1905.
Joan Hoback (ed.): To Help and to Heal: The History of National Jewish Health 1899-2009. Larry Borowsky and Lisa Jones, contributing editors. Denver: National Jewish Health, 2009. The best history to read if you're only reading one.
Samuel Schaefer and Eugene Parsons: "A Brief History of the National Jewish Hospital at Denver," Colorado Magazine 5 (1928): 195.
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