The museum at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago is impressive. It provides visitors with a glimpse of the facility's history, as well as of some of the prominent doctors who have practiced there and in its precedent institutions. The opportunity to experience part of the hospital's history is important, because that history is the foundation upon which the hospital's identity is built today. As such, that history can be used to attract, comfort, and reassure patients, as well as to educate and retain staff.

Many hospitals have explored their histories over the years. These efforts have led, more often than not, to the publication of books that chronicle a hospital's past. The Presence of Care: the History of Saint Luke's Hospital of Kansas City by Edward T. Matheny, Jr. and Frederic J. Hron is a fine example. While the stories told in works such as these are valuable, they typically focus on administrative matters. They don't embrace an approach that includes a history of the buildings, the people, and the medical activities of the past. They should, however, because it is in those components that a more inclusive approach—a more transcendent experience–involving healthcare in a particular hospital can be found.

Our firm, Heritage Research, Ltd., worked closely several years ago with Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital in Milwaukee on just such a project. Froedtert acquired and was incorporating into its campus the former Milwaukee County General Hospital building, which had been constructed in the late 1920s (figure 1). Vice-President of Facility Planning&Development for Froedtert&Community Health John Balzer and the Froedtert administration recognized the important and significant role that County General had played in providing healthcare to Milwaukee-area residents over the years.

The architect's rendering of the historic Milwaukee County General Hospital.

We endeavored with Mr. Balzer to document and chronicle the history of the prominent County General building before it was torn down. Froedtert had also saved a variety of architectural artifacts from the old building. These now hang on a wall in the primary corridor between the hospital's east and west clinics, across from the corporate offices. All are interpreted through captions and photographs prepared by our firm. This is a high-visibility traffic-way, and the display of the County General artifacts attracts the attention of many passing though it. Mr. Balzer explained that the presentation “was not to memorialize the [historic] building, but rather to memorialize the building of a strong healthcare tradition. Thus, our focus turned to events more so than architecture. In other words, how could we, through creative salvaging of artifacts from the building, help portray to future generations our culture, heritage, and healthcare tradition that evolved in these buildings that were soon to be demolished?”

Mr. Balzer recently observed that the “display has been in place for more than eight years and has been extremely successful. Not a week goes by that I don't observe staff, patients, and visitors admiring, touching, and conversing about the artifacts that were preserved.” Examples of the artifacts preserved include the brass surround and clock that embellished the interior door frame of the hospital's main entrance (figure 2), as well as the lower portion of the banister from the main stairway that accommodated passage from the first to second floor (figure 3). Colonettes that once framed the windows of the historic lobby now help define the windows associated with Froedtert's lobby (figure 4).

This brass frame, with its crowning clock, framed the inside wall of Milwaukee County General Hospital's main entrance.

This banister extended from the lobby area of Milwaukee County General Hospital to the second floor. Many Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital patients remember the banister from the historic County General building.

This iron gate framed and embellished the fan-light window above the main entrance of Milwaukee County GeneralHospital.

We are presently working on a project with Columbia St. Mary's Hospital in Milwaukee involving two institutions that were recently merged. Together, they bring almost 250 years of healthcare experience to the residents of southeastern Wisconsin (St. Mary's is 150 years old, while Columbia is nearly 100). Columbia St. Mary's is consolidating and building a new campus in Milwaukee, largely oriented to the historic St. Mary's hospital site.

In effect, the Columbia-St. Mary's union has joined two prominent, yet historically different hospitals. St. Mary's has been an institution sponsored by Holy Orders that focused on providing care to all. Columbia, on the other hand, has been a hospital that emphasized research to treat disease by providing superior facilities for medical staff. We are working with the combined facility to establish a program that will acknowledge the history and significance of both historic hospitals. St. Mary's had a head start in this effort because it had historical material prepared for both its centennial and sesquicentennial anniversaries. We have been working on Columbia's history as well, which is of equal importance to the new combined institution.

Recognizing this history will serve two key purposes. It will help convey to patients and their families that, as they walk into a new, state-of-the-art hospital facility, the Columbia-St. Mary's institution has a long and successful history of caring for the ill and injured. It will also acknowledge for employees and physicians the vital components and histories that each of the hospitals brings to the merged entity and its new campus. This will give them all a sense of “ownership” in the new home of the historic institutions.

An important component in the research conducted for these various endeavors is the collective memory of both a hospital's active and retired staff. The insight, information, and history gained from those people can be important when considering the specific vehicles through which to convey an institution's heritage to its patients, visitors, and staff. A reasonable way to secure such information is through oral histories—conversations between a well-prepared interviewer and a hospital associate. Taped, transcribed, and then passed along to the interviewee for approval, the information gained can possibly be used in the types of projects discussed or be archived in a hospital's library for future use by patients or staff. The key is to create a repository of information that is useful to patient and staff today, as well as in the future.

The ultimate question is where or how should a hospital's history be presented? The answer will likely vary from hospital to hospital. The key, indeed the challenge, is to integrate an institution's history into a contemporary environment in a way that it cannot be overlooked. Some may choose to create a small museum. A museum room or historical display adjacent to a hospital's main foyer would be one possibility. Another might be to incorporate artifacts or historic photographs into the environs of heavily used corridors, as Froedtert did. The task for the historian, the hospital, and the hospital's architect is to develop the information and present it in a meaningful way that reaches the intended audience–the patients, their families, and staff.

Hospitals today exist in an increasingly competitive environment. Their challenge is to attract patients, reassure them and their families, and inspire their staff in the process of providing high-quality care. History, when properly used, can help to achieve those goals.

Froedtert's John Balzer observed that “much to our delight, we have learned that the historical display not only meets all of our original goals regarding the roots of our Medical Center, but serves further as being a positive distraction to those here in stressful times as they wander the halls waiting for a loved one, for example, to emerge from surgery or be transferred from the ICU to a regular room.” That is high praise, but within it is an implied challenge—to make history a relevant part of the hospital-healing experience.HD

John N. Vogel, PhD, is with Heritage Research, Ltd., historical/environmental consultants based in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin