CENTERS OF EXCELLENCE
A Fateful Day in 1888
Margaret Cavanaugh, a Norwalk resident and hat trimmer, was on her way to work when she happened upon a troubling scene — a man had been struck by a train and lay dying in the street. At that time, there was nowhere in Norwalk to bring the gravely ill or injured. Those with considerable wealth and means might be taken to New York or New Haven, but ordinary people faced the hazards of horse-car wrecks, factory accidents, childbed fever and pneumonia in a city without a hospital. Though devastated by the sight of the dying man, Margaret got involved. She enlisted passersby to carry the wounded man to a makeshift dispensary in the South Norwalk depot.
Deeply troubled, Margaret vowed to find an answer for such tragic emergencies. She and some of her female coworkers went to their foreman, John Mains, and implored him to wield his influence. At Margaret’s suggestion, and thanks to her selfless compassion, a citywide meeting of hat workers was called, and the movement to establish a Norwalk hospital was born. The community rallied and people from all walks of life supported the movement.
Norwalk Hospital became a reality in 1893. Today, the hospital has realized more than 120 years of service and leadership because of the steadfast support of neighbors who understand what an outstanding hospital means to the well-being of the greater community.
How the Townspeople Responded
After a “Hatters’ Hospital Fund” reached $6,000, a temporary community-wide association was organized at a public meeting. Its first fund-raiser was a benefit baseball game between married and bachelor physicians that netted $1,052. But the raised funds weren’t enough. News broke that the rudimentary first-aid room at the depot was to close. A public rally for a Norwalk hospital convened at the city’s armory in October 1891, and rally they did. The Weekly Gazette reported the “monster meeting” filled every seat in the vast armory and had 300 standees. The Rev. William J. Slocum of St. Mary’s led the pledges, declaring, “We don’t want talk so much as we do want money,” and the populace caught the spirit. Hat trimmers, churches and schools staged a bazaar that raised $2,800 and drew the support of leading citizenry, assuring its success.
On December 3, 1892, the state of Connecticut granted the incorporation of The Norwalk Hospital Association. At the association’s first meeting, in the office of Judge John Light, John I. Ferris was elected president.
As temporary quarters, the association leased the second and part of the third floor of a frame house at 24 Leonard Street. On opening day, July 20, 1893, The Norwalk Hour praised the accommodations as “scrupulously clean, with separate wards for men and women, three snow-white beds in each.” A converted kitchen served as an operating room and the landlord’s son doubled as the first orderly and ambulance driver.
Among the original incorporators, besides ministers, merchants and other worthies were four physicians who, as local doctors, had been meeting professionally as the Norwalk Medical Society since 1868. Its secretary, William J. Tracey, MD, became Medical Director of the hospital, first in a long line of Tracey physicians that continue to serve a century, and four generations, later. Also included among the original incorporators was Margaret Cavanaugh’s ex-foreman, state representative John Mains.
A Woman’s Board is Formed
At the association’s first meeting, Margaret Cavanaugh was named to the Ladies Visiting Board, a group created and led by prominent townswomen. Later renamed the Woman’s Board, the group was charged with supplying many basic hospital needs and comforts, a mission that took on heroic proportions in the decades ahead.
Within days, five patients had been admitted. During its six years, the walk-up hospital treated 431 patients and had to turn away many more. The limits of turn-of-the-century medicine were evident from the records; only five operations were listed for 1893, all of them simple amputations of fingers or toes. Before public health measures and antibiotics, typhoid fever and pneumonia loomed large and lingered long. An average hospital stay back then was 20 days.
As patients streamed in from a growing Norwalk and the villages of Westport, Weston, Wilton and Darien, the community pressed ahead with construction. On August 21, 1899, the doors opened on a new hospital on Armory Hill on the Post Road (Connecticut Avenue near Stuart).
The People’s Hospital
The 26-bed institution offered some private rooms and an “etherizing room” for surgery. The program of a 1900 musical spoke glowingly of “The People’s Hospital,” but reminded “appreciative hearts” of ongoing needs. The direct link of gifts to medical care is seen in the 1906 annual report’s thanks for a tank of oxygen, a stomach tube and a clock for the operating room. Other welcome donations were linens, a bushel of apples, and “on one very warm day, ice cream for all the patients, nurse and orderlies.” Then as now, friends also helped the hospital keep up with scientific advances. Only a decade after Wilhelm Roentgen announced his discovery of the X-ray in Germany, 1906 donors in Norwalk were thanked for enabling the purchase of “an X-Ray machine.”
Norwalk Hospital nursing education began in December 1905, with one “pupil nurse” becoming the vanguard of generations of nurses who earned their caps during the 68-year existence of the School of Nursing.
Though the hospital expanded to 40 beds, in a few years it was overtaxed. Families began to look to hospitals for childbirth, but there was no maternity ward. The board confronted the need to build yet again. Fortunately, new resources of leadership and philanthropy emerged.
Friends in Deed
John J. Cavanaugh, brother of Margaret, was energy personified. In industry he rose from workbench to executive suite, becoming head of the Hat Corporation of America by the 1920s. Elected mayor of Norwalk in 1909, he donated the yearly salary of $250 to the hospital and became a director. Soon, the hospital became his lifelong crusade.
When it was found that an adequate new hospital would cost $100,000 (an astronomical cost in 1915), it was Cavanaugh who induced John H. McMullen, a retired construction magnate, to take the presidency and begin fundraising. Even more importantly, Cavanaugh interested E.T. Bedford, a financier, oilman and philanthropist from Greens Farms, in the welfare of the hospital. Bedford had the foresight to see what a fine hospital could do for an entire area, and the wisdom to structure “giving” in ways that would spur community efforts. During more than 75 years, the vision and generosity of the Bedford family has been crucial to Norwalk Hospital’s growth and strength.
Service in Times of Historic Crisis
The new 75-bed building, high on Stevens Street overlooking the city, was being readied for a December 3rd debut in 1918 when the deadly worldwide influenza epidemic struck. Board member Samuel Roodner rushed his own crew over to help finish the work, and on October 12, the doors were opened for the sick. Within 35 days, 119 flu patients were treated.
With Bedford leading the board and Cavanaugh second in command, expansion continued. To train enough nurses, the Nursing School badly needed its own building. Bedford made a 50 percent challenge pledge that was matched through a Kiwanis Club campaign and Knights of Columbus benefits, to erect the Mary A. Bedford Nurses Home in 1926. He went on to underwrite the entire Bedford Pavilion, which doubled the hospital’s capacity to 160 in 1929.
Medical advances also kept pace; the first electrocardiograph for detecting heart disease arrived in 1920. Then a scientist hired from Cornell Medical School set up a pathology laboratory. With updated devices, she and a “roentgenologist” started an X-ray department, and diagnostic X-rays tripled in one year. Radiation therapy began in 1928, and the hospital hired its first house physician and interns, a harbinger of today’s major medical education program.
During the Great Depression, survival was a real concern for institutions as well as individuals; 110 American hospitals were forced to close in 1932 alone. Norwalk Hospital not only prevailed, it pioneered. Its Hospital Service Plan group insurance in 1935 was one of the state’s first; later joining with New Haven, it evolved into Connecticut Blue Cross.
Inspiration and Innovation
Norwalk Hospital’s medical innovations included a Tumor Clinic that began in 1934, ahead of most community hospitals in the area. Weekly consultations for cancer patients, regardless of their ability to pay, were the first steps toward today’s comprehensive clinic program, which features more than 30 specialties serving over 50,000 patients per year.
A World War II labor influx had an already-full hospital overflowing. With government help, the North Wing was added in 1944. Yet much more was needed when the postwar suburban explosion tripled the demands upon Norwalk Hospital. Once more the people responded. Energetic campaigns in Norwalk and surrounding towns made the Community Pavilion a reality in 1953. In 1961, the generosity of Charles A. Dana and Mrs. Roman H. Heyn enabled the construction of the Dana Pavilion. Further 1960s expansion added more floors to keep up with area growth.
Norman A. Brady served as President from 1971-85 and facilitated many new medical and educational vistas. In 1975, the Hospital formalized its affiliation with Yale University School of Medicine for a graduate residency program in internal medicine; today, every clinical department at Norwalk Hospital has an educational association with its counterpart at Yale. The hospital introduced Ambulatory Surgery to Connecticut and launched the nation’s first postgraduate residency exclusively for surgical physician assistants. Norwalk became one of the first hospitals in the state to install a hospital-wide computerized patient information system. And in 1978, a vigorous building drive doubled the hospital’s square footage.
A Century of Service
President David W. Osborne led the hospital in meeting the challenge of change in the 1990s. Community health care needs called for modernization of older facilities, limited new construction and cost containment. The times called for continual long-range scope and vision in order to enhance quality care in all areas. Our outpatient surgeries, treatments and visits continue to number well over 100,000 per year.
Norwalk Hospital, under the leadership of Mr. Osborne, celebrated its Centennial in the early 1990s with the successful completion of this major improvements program of construction and modernization — all made possible, once again, by contributions from the entire community.
“It is most gratifying,” John J. Cavanaugh said 50 years ago, “that the hatter’s dream has become one of the most notable hospitals of the East, from the most humble beginnings.” Remembering our origins and aspirations, Norwalk Hospital welcomes a new century of partnership with those we serve.