First modern medical facility: Newton Hospital

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on May 12, 2016.

Main building at Newton Hospital (Source: 1933 Scultetus via archive.org)

Main building at Newton Hospital
(Source: 1933 Scultetus via archive.org)

One of the great challenges of the 21st Century has been figuring out how to provide access to affordable medical care for all Americans. This isn’t just a moral issue, but an economic one as well. A healthier population is more productive and self-reliant.

This problem isn’t new. Since the advent of modern medicine within the United States in the late 1800s, communities have dealt with the question of establishing some sort of medical facility to aid its population. Indeed, Wellesley began this debate more than 100 years ago, the result of which was a partnership with the Newton Hospital, a medical center located a mere half-mile from the Wellesley border and officially known since 1945 as Newton-Wellesley Hospital.

First, some background: The facility opened its doors in 1886 as the Newton Cottage Hospital, the result of a suggestion from the rector of Newton’s Grace Episcopal Church to the Mayor of Newton that the city would benefit greatly from the establishment of its own hospital. Located in a secluded area of Newton at the outskirts of Lower Falls and Auburndale, it was open to all residents of Newton as well as those of other communities, including Wellesley.

It’s important to note that hospitals back then served a much different purpose than they do today. Healthcare was still mostly provided within the home, as doctors traveled to see their patients. Alternatively, some doctors established at-home offices so patients could come to them. The Newton Cottage Hospital, on the other hand, was able to provide long-term care for non-emergency patients, primarily incurables and convalescents.

Of course, medical care cost money. One critical role of the hospital and its benefactors was therefore to provide free and subsidized services to the poor and needy — farmers, laborers, indigents, etc. — who often required more care than the other sectors of the population. In 1897, two Wellesley residents who served on the Hospital’s Ladies’ Aid Association did just that for their own town’s poor, successfully negotiating the establishment of a free bed at the hospital that would be assigned exclusively to Wellesley residents.

This arrangement would only last until 1916, when the hospital’s burden to serve Newton’s growing population required the dissolution of Wellesley’s free bed. It was nevertheless agreed that Wellesley residents could still use the hospital, albeit at the regular cost.

Yet our town leaders knew that it was only a matter of time before the Newton Hospital would be forced to sever its ties with Wellesley. In fact, they had been preparing for this for quite a while. Eleven years earlier, in 1905, the Wellesley Club had established the Wellesley Hospital Fund to raise money to construct a hospital within the town (or donate it should one be privately built).

Alas, there was one problem: it wasn’t cost-effective for Wellesley to build its own state-of-the-art hospital given its relatively modest population. Furthermore, considering how close the Newton Hospital was to Wellesley, it made far more sense to reestablish and strengthen its mutual partnership with this larger hospital.

The development of this formal relationship did not occur smoothly. This process began in 1926, when, to no one’s surprise, the Newton Hospital announced that it must cease serving the residents of Wellesley. However, if Wellesley were to contribute a large enough portion of the funds required to expand the hospital’s medical facilities — about 10% of the $2.5 million cost — then its residents would still be able to use the hospital. In addition, Wellesley residents would be appointed to the hospital’s Board of Trustees and assist in the facility’s operation. Sounds like a great deal, right? As the proponents from Wellesley described it: “This is not a drive for charity. It is an investment to safeguard the health of the entire community.”

For whatever reason, Wellesley residents didn’t bite. Despite the endorsements of the Wellesley Hospital Fund, the Wellesley Club, and physicians of the town, less than 10% of Wellesley’s population contributed. The collected money was therefore returned, as it was the opinion of the fundraising committee that the sentiment of the town was not in favor of a new hospital.

A few years later, in 1929, as the new six-story medical center was nearing completion, the committee tried raising the necessary funds once again. With the directors of the Newton Hospital willing to accept a reduced contribution of $100,000, enough Wellesley residents were now willing to donate. The Town of Wellesley finally had its modern medical center.

Certainly since that time, the hospital has evolved greatly. Not just in terms of the physical expansion of its facilities, but also through the increased role that healthcare plays within our lives. Furthermore, the growth of the private health insurance industry — not to mention the creation of Medicare, Medicaid, and other government-subsidized healthcare programs — has made the relationship between patients and the hospital arguably quite complex. But there has been one constant throughout: Wellesley residents have always had access to high quality healthcare just a stone’s throw away.

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