North Carolina Baptist Hospital: A House of Healing Celebrates 100 Years
When J.A. Jones, the contractor who had built North Carolina Baptist Hospital, presented the key to the front door, he said, “Well, here’s the key, but there’s not much need for it, since a hospital’s door should never be locked to the sick.” Egbert L. Davis, Sr., the chairman of the hospital’s trustees, agreed that was a splendid thought.
It was a gray, chilly spring day in May 1923. Because of the weather, the hospital dedication ceremony had been moved from the front yard into the lobby. Every surface was shined to a high gloss and decorated with floral arrangements fit for an Easter service.
In the middle of this decorum, the hospital received its first two patients, two boys who somehow had become tangled up together, one breaking an arm, the other a leg. The boys were not recorded as the first official patients, probably because the hospital’s new business manager, Olivia Hall, was embarrassed that one of them was her nephew. But this turn of events seemed to confirm the overpowering need for a new hospital. Surely this would be a busy place.
Elsewhere in the world, the Frenchman Marquis de Pescarra had just unveiled his version of a new machine that would one day be important to the hospital: the helicopter. Back in Winston-Salem, the nurses at Baptist Hospital were having a thoroughly uneventful afternoon. The telephone was strangely silent, although the number, 2778, had been published in the newspaper. Some of the nurses lounged on the front steps as they waited for patients to arrive.
Finally, in the distance they heard Monroe Speas’ Model-T Ford clacking up Hawthorne Hill. His wife, Esther, had appendicitis. Their physician had mentioned that Winston-Salem had two hospitals now. People had a choice. So, Esther Speas became the first official patient. She had her appendix out on May 28, 1923. At 3 pm the same day, Daisy Trivette gave birth to a son, Fred Junior. The bill would come to $76.85. The baby identification necklace was $1 extra.
By the end of the day, the hospital would have five patients.
The Wilds of Ardmore
The idea for a Baptist hospital was formally introduced at the 1919 annual meeting of the Baptist State Convention. One purpose of the hospital was to give medical care to those unable to pay for such services: “To those who are sick and need care the Baptist Hospital is the House of Healing. This institution is more than a building of red brick and mortar. Beneath its sturdy exterior beats the heart of humanity.” The second purpose was to open a school of nursing. Simply put, the new hospital would be a place of healing and teaching.
In September 1920, the Baptist State Convention appointed a special commission to find a site to build the hospital. It needed to be a large tract of land suitable for expansion over the years. The Convention building committee chose 11.2 acres of land in the Ardmore section of Winston-Salem, about a mile from the courthouse square. Many people called it “the wilds of Ardmore.” It was a heavily wooded area with a tiny brook crossing the center. Quail and rabbits lived there in abundance. Only two streets were paved - Hawthorne Road and Queen Street. Two homes faced the hospital site, and the rest of Ardmore was undeveloped.
Stitchers and Solariums
Hundreds of pieces of linen were necessary to open and operate the hospital. A group of Baptist ministers’ wives in Winston-Salem organized themselves into a group of “sewers and stitchers.” In a large room at the Zinzendorf Hotel on Main Street, the group collected sewing machines - borrowed and rented - to make all linen except sheets and pillowcases. All operating room and obstetrical linens, bed gowns, and ward curtains were cut and made there. Thanks to the sewers and stitchers, an adequate supply was ready when the hospital opened.
Construction of the hospital took about two years, from 1921 to 1923. The building had five floors, 88 beds, two large solariums, and a sitting room on each floor. Solariums, or sunrooms, were popular in the 1920s. People believed that sunlight and fresh air were vital to good mental and physical health. In hospitals, the solarium was a room where patients could be exposed to sunlight in a controlled environment as part of their treatment.
The first floor of the hospital also contained offices, an X-ray department, nurses’ dining room, telephone switchboard and kitchens. The Director of Nurses had her own suite on the first floor, complete with living room, bedroom and bathroom. Later, a small laboratory was added to the first floor.
Only two floors were open for patients the first year. The third floor was for obstetrical patients, while the fourth floor was for medicine and surgery for adults and children. The fifth floor was set aside as living space for nursing students.
Nursing School Opens
In the summer of 1923, the first class of nursing students was admitted. Fifteen were enrolled, and 10 completed the course. After two years living on the hospital’s fifth floor, the students moved into a new stucco duplex house across the street. Gladys Roberts, laboratory technician, also served as housemother.
In the 1920s, the bob - a short, chin-length haircut - was very popular for women. But at the hospital, nursing students were not allowed to wear their hair short. Eventually a notice was placed on the bulletin board in the dining room that read: “All students who think they will be better looking with short hair may have it cut.” By 5 pm, most of the nurses on duty had already cut their hair.
In 1928, the Blanch Barrus Nurses’ Home was built as living quarters for nursing students. The building was renovated in 1959 to become one of the nation’s first Progressive Care Centers, designed to reduce costs to patients not requiring full nursing and medical care at North Carolina Baptist Hospital. Known today as the Progressive Care Building, it houses several hospital departments and is the oldest standing structure at the hospital, easy to notice on the corner of Hawthorne Road and Medical Center Boulevard.
The School of Nursing educated nurses until 1974. Today, alumni continue to support nurses through generous scholarship funds, and Wake Forest University School of Medicine’s Department of Academic Nursing offers doctoral nursing degrees in Nurse Anesthesia (CRNA) and Doctor of Nursing Practice.
Birthday Parties for the Young and Old
In 1926, hospital staff sent party invitations to nearly 400 proud parents of babies born there during the first three years. Those who attended brought 250 children, ages 4 months to 4 years, including Fred Trivette, the first baby born at the hospital. Merchants in Winston-Salem who sold infant and children’s clothing set up booths, weighed and registered all babies, and gave prizes. Refreshments were served on the lawn.
While the hospital was seeing its fair share of newborns, there were many vacant rooms in the first two years of the hospital’s existence. Occasionally the hospital accepted a patient who was a boarder. One of these was Mrs. Watkins of Winston-Salem, who was 99 years old when admitted. When she turned 100, hospital staff held a special celebration in her honor. A 15-pound cake was baked and decorated with 100 small candles. Mrs. Watkins was dressed in her “Sunday best” while friends visited her with flowers and gifts.
The Miracle on Hawthorne Hill
In 1941, Wake Forest College’s medical school moved from its campus in Wake Forest to Winston-Salem. The Gray family had supplied funds from the Bowman Gray estate to attract a medical school to the city. Bowman Gray School of Medicine joined North Carolina Baptist Hospital to become an academic medical center. The School of Medicine opened with 75 students, and the first class graduated in 1943.
To prepare for its part in the medical center, North Carolina Baptist Hospital expanded to 270 beds and 50 bassinets. It had an annual operating budget of $225,624 and charged patients $2.00 per day for room and board.
In the first 20 years of its existence, many people expressed doubt that North Carolina Baptist Hospital could survive. But the growth of the medical center and its impact on health care and the communities it serves has had a lasting legacy, so much so that it has been referred to as “the miracle on Hawthorne Hill.”
A Place of Healing and Teaching Grows
Beginning with the simple commitment to be a place of healing and teaching, North Carolina Baptist Hospital has grown over the decades to become so much more than its founders could ever have imagined. The hospital has been home to many medical firsts, leading the way in research discoveries and clinical advancements.
The hospital has gone through a few name changes over the years, although many fondly refer to it as “the Baptist.” Today, the hospital is known as Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, and it plays a pivotal role in research and education for Wake Forest University School of Medicine, a nationally known leader in groundbreaking research and experiential medical education.
The School of Medicine is now the academic core of Advocate Health, the fifth largest health system in the country, created through the combination of Atrium Health and Advocate Aurora Health.
Over the decades, the hospital has continued to focus on meeting community needs, expanding health equity and creating a place where all belong. During the 2021 fiscal year, Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist provided more than $611 million in community benefits - the largest total in its history - which includes unreimbursed care, charity care, education and research, and community health improvement.
What once faced Hawthorne Road now points in many directions. A front door is no longer easy to identify - patients pass through many doors. And, as J.A. Jones first suggested, those doors are never locked to them.
This article includes excerpts from the Summer 1998 Visions magazine celebrating the 75th anniversary of North Carolina Baptist Hospital and a 1960 manuscript on the history of the hospital written by Edna L. Heinzerling. References also include the Dorothy Carpenter Medical Archives: The Beginnings of Baptist Hospital, and the North Carolina Room, Forsyth County Public Library: Baptist genesis, 1923.