Santa Rosa was a nice place to visit before WWI, but you didn’t want to get sick here; until 1920, there was no real hospital in town.

It may seem odd that the largest town in the area – much less the county seat – would lack something as basic as a hospital, but at that time doctors usually treated the sick or injured in their homes or hotel rooms. (Because physicians spent so much time zipping from bedside to bedside, many were among the first to buy automobiles; in 1908, one doctor even argued that their cars should be exempt from city speed limits because they might be rushing to an emergency.) Doctors and nurses usually rented rooms in their homes for those needing continuing care, and in every town of any size there were convalescent and maternity homes available. For those with a little money, Burke’s Sanitarium on Mark West Springs Road offered quackish cures for what-ails-you; for those with no money at all, there was the County Hospital, which only took in indigents (an excellent history of the County Hospital by Jeremy Nichols is available here). For those with a serious medical condition, there was a train to the San Francisco ferry.

Until its 1908 closing, there was also the “Santa Rosa Hospital” at 741 Humboldt St. – an address that no longer exists, but was directly across the street from the present Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts. Little is known about it, except that it was founded by a pair of doctors around the turn of the century, as Gaye LeBaron wrote in her second volume of Santa Rosa history. Although the place must have been a whirlwind following the Great Earthquake, the papers only mentioned that so-and-so was at the hospital and “doing nicely” – and, of course, the discovery that a con man was posing as a doctor and swiping stuff from patients and staff. Even the hospital’s closing merited only a single paragraph in one of the newspapers; you had to read the San Francisco press to learn that the two women who owned it had filed for bankruptcy, owing the substantial sum (in 1908 terms) of $2,878.50 to employees and suppliers. Why would the local papers shy from any mention of the Santa Rosa Hospital? Likely because the facilities were small and out-of-date, drawbacks which were not in keeping with the booster image of Santa Rosa as a community that offered all amenities of other Bay Area cities.

The only thing worse than a dinky and old-fashioned hospital was none at all, but that’s what Santa Rosa now faced in June, 1908. There was talk that a Catholic order intended to build a Sister’s Hospital, but nothing came of it. Then late in the year came the happy announcement that the Mary Jesse Hospital was open.

Named after the mother of Dr. Jesse, the hospital was the doctor’s former home at 815 Fifth street, on the corner of King st. It probably wasn’t much larger than the Santa Rosa Hospital – it would eventually offer twenty beds – but it did have modern services, including an operating room and an elevator. Not that these features always worked in harmony; Martha Comstock Keegan, who had her tonsils removed at the hospital around 1943, recalls that lights in the operating room would blink out for a moment whenever someone pressed the button to call the elevator.

For about forty years, the Mary Jesse Hospital – later renamed the Eliza Tanner Hospital – served the community. General Hospital was built in 1920 and Memorial Hospital was established in 1950, after a fund-raising drive led by Hilliard Comstock.

With Santa Rosa General and Memorial, the town finally had the sort of antiseptic, built-from-scratch hospitals that everyone expects to die in today. But gone was the small town charm of recuperating in someone’s former bedroom, tended by a small, tightly-knit medical staff. A story from 1913 reveals what charm was lost:

One of the Mary Jesse nurses apparently couldn’t shut up about the fun she had stealing watermelons from a field. The next day, according to the San Francisco Call, Dr. Jesse “bundled four or five of the girls into his auto and whirled them all out into the country. They climbed cautiously over a fence, swooped down on a patch of fine, big melons and carried them away with terrified backward glances and suppressed giggles. This proved such great sport that the doctor repeated the performance about twice a week.”

The good Dr. James Jesse (!) of course, had previously arranged the “robbery” with the farmer, paying him in advance.

Photographs courtesy Sonoma County Library

(Edited 2020 to correct General Hospital construction in 1920, not 1917.)

Splendid Equipment of the Mary Jesse Hospital on Fifth Street–Ready For Patients

Santa Rosa is now equipped with one of the neatest little hospitals in the state, thanks to the public spiritedness of Dr. J. W. Jesse. It is known as the “Mary Jesse Hospital,” in memory of Dr. Jesse’s honored mother.

The hospital was formerly the large residence of Dr. and Mrs. Jesse at 815 Fifth street which has been entirely remodeled on the second floor so as to provide half a dozen private wards, besides an operating room, drug and bandage closets and sterilizing room, as well as nurses quarters.

The east side of the lower floor has been converted into general wards, one for men and the other for women. The hospital will at present accommodate 16 patients and there is room to add six other beds in case of emergency or necessity at any time. In addition to the patients’ rooms there are three find porches for sleeping and resting which will be enjoyed by convalescents.

The hospital is in charge of Mrs. Jesse and is open to the public and physicians of the city generally on equal terms. There will be no discrimination and it is hoped that the medical fraternity will make good use of the opportunities thus offered them as for sometime past there has been no place where an injured person or one seriously ill could be taking for treatment.

An elevator has been placed in the building so that a patient brought into the hospital in the ambulance can be placed on it and taken direct to the operating room or individual ward on the second floor without any inconvenience or trouble. The operating room is enameled in white and fitted with all the latest appliances for the use of the operators. Miss Helena Liersch, a graduate of the California Women’s Hospital in San Francisco, is in charge as head nurse and will be assisted by a full corps of well-trained and experienced nurses.

Dr. Jesse is complemented on the complete manner in which he has equipped the new hospital. The hospital is not ready and patients will be received after today. A number of applications were received during the past week for admission but owing to the incomplete condition of the equipment they all had to be refused.

– Press Democrat, November 22, 1908

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