Friday, January 19, 2018

The Orange County Hospital and Poor House

An early Orange County Hospital ambulance. (Photo courtesy Orange County Archives)
The goals of providing our poorest citizens with health care and shelter have been with Orange County since its birth in 1889. By then, each city (Anaheim, Santa Ana and Orange) already had a health department, guided by a local doctor. And the County of Orange – long before the state or federal government provided such social services – tried various methods to provide acute medical services for the poor on their limited budget. In the beginning, they rented a little space from local banker/investor Carey R. Smith for such purposes. Later, they paid Mrs. Silvia M. Klein to provide nursing care as needed.

In his memoirs, Dr. Herbert A. Johnson remembered the Board of Supervisors’ 1891 appointment of “Dr. J. P. Boyd as the first county physician and health officer. Dr. Boyd’s kindly nature and wide practical experience fitted him admirably for the position, yet he had but little equipment for its administration. There was no building one could designate in any way as a hospital, and the only place available for emergency cases was a room in the county jail. I imagine a sensitive moral indigent who had probably seen better days would not feel too happy over the County’s hospitality.”

The three-room cesspool of a "county jail" was so foul that even the prisoners had to be evacuated occasionally. It wasn't functional even as a jail, (as the infamous Francisco Torres affair of 1892 would prove), let alone as a place where the sick could  convalesce.

In 1901, the County took a step toward improving the situation by renting an existing building on Second St. in Santa Ana that seemed perfectly suited to the purpose. It had a large lobby and a long hall with several small rooms off of it. The madam who’d been running the “hotel” – Mrs. Mary “Glass-eyed Mollie” Wright – made only one stipulation: that one room be set aside for her crippled, elderly father, “Mysterious Bill,” to live out his remaining years.

Dr. Johnson described the place as he saw it in 1903, with Mysterious Bill living “in a little shack… where he had two spare beds which the County could utilize if they were required.” Johnson said it was “a decided step forward” in the “accommodation of county patients.”
The County Hospital and Poor House, Fifth St. and Spurgeon St., Santa Ana , 1904 (Photo: O.C. Archives)
In 1904, the County upgraded again and began renting a charming green cottage at the corner of 5th and Spurgeon Streets in Santa Ana from real estate man W.G. Wells as a combination county hospital and poor house. (A poor house was an institution where paupers were maintained with public funds.) This property had twelve beds and featured beautiful gardens and apricot trees. But the very ill or seriously injured usually still had to be sent to private hospitals or to the Los Angeles County Hospital for more intensive care.

Since its inception, the County had maintained an “indigent fund,” out of which the Board of Supervisors could help individual locals who were down on their luck. Families were given $5 to $7 each month for each family member who qualified for assistance. Meanwhile, “tramps” – indigents coming into the area from elsewhere – fared less well: They were arrested for vagrancy and given two meals of bread and water each day. Rations improved on days when the Sheriff used them as free labor assisting with various County public works projects.

The addition of a poor house to the hospital filled a need for Orange Countians who couldn’t afford shelter and provided more specific kinds of help than did the indigent rolls.

One of the residents described his poor house experience in the Santa Ana Register in 1910: "You are admitted, the inmates give you a name of their own choosing, and you take your place among the other inmates... according to your qualities and the estimate of the people you are among.

...According to their physical ability, poor house inmates are very properly required to do a little work each day, excepting Sunday. Work makes them healthier, saves some county expense and keeps them in training and physically fit as far as possible, so that, opportunity offering, they may go out in to the world of business and affairs again and work for a living.”
An early plan for a new county hospital by architect Frederick Eley, circa 1913.
As early as 1906, the idea of a larger, permanent county hospital and poor farm (like a larger poor house complex where the residents produced agricultural products) was under discussion. As the area's population grew, the number of poor patients grew as well. In 1910 the old hospital was declared a nuisance and the Board of Supervisors began touring possible new locations. A new facility, near Chapman Ave. and today’s The City Drive, would not be completed until 1914, but it would go on to anchor a whole cluster of government facilities that now includes such diverse elements as Juvenile Hall, the Lamoreaux Justice Center, and OC Animal Care. The 1914 hospital opened with one doctor, five nurses, and two orderlies. It was located in a flood-prone area out on the State Highway between Santa Ana and Anaheim -- where land was inexpensive.

In a 1990 Orange County Register article, reporter Greg Zoroya described the hospital's surrounding grounds: "There were cottages for staff and poor people on the site, 27 acres of orange groves and grazing for a herd of pure-bred Holstein cows owned by the hospital." 

The new Orange County Hospital experienced significant shortcomings in its early decades -- including massive tuburculosis and polio outbreaks, poor sanitation, overcrowding, bad food and outdated equipment. Much of this was attributable to the hospital's small budget. 
The old Orange County Hospital building's main entrance as it appeared in 2009 (Author's photo)
The winds of change began to stir at the end of World War II, as the 1945-1946 Orange County Grand Jury decried the terrible state of affairs. Zoroya writes,

"Their investigation showed that surgical tools could not be sterilized during operations, waste water was being dumped into the scrub sink for doctors, and ventilation was so poor that moisture on the ceiling dripped onto operating tables. They found iceboxes used in place of modern refrigeration, weak lighting fixtures, an odorous and malfunctioning bed-pan cleaner, and the hiring of parolees from the state mental hospital to work as meal servers."

This seemed to light a fire under the county. By 1949 building expansions and improvements were well under way and the hospital's budget and staff had doubled. Progress continued throughout the 1950s with care improving dramatically. It also became known as a respected teaching hospital.

In 1976, the County Hospital was sold to the University of California. Since then, an almost entirely new campus has sprung up on this site as the cutting-edge University of California Irvine (UCI) Medical Center. In addition to serving the community as any other modern hospital would, it also continues to provide care to those who cannot afford it. The old County Hospital building of 1914 -- long since converted to offices and storage -- was torn down in 2010.