French-American Foundation for Medical Research & Education

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History of French Hospital

French Hospital has a rich heritage in the annals of both San Francisco and the state of California, with its roots deeply entrenched in the history of this city. It possesses the proud distinction of being the oldest existing hospital in the state, being founded as "La Societe Francaise de Bienfaisance Mutuelle" on December 28, 1851, the year following the admission of California into the Union.

This was the period, in the romantic history of this empire, when gold was the dominating factor in the economic lives of its settlers. The discovery of this precious metal, which was to focus the attention of the world upon California, had been made but three years before and the following year, 1849, had seen the mad exodus from the four corners of the globe. Nowhere had Marshall's discovery of gold in 1845 at the race-mill at Colma, evoked greater interest than in France and particularly in and about Paris. This was the magnet that attracted some 20,000 French settlers to these shores between 1849 and 1851. They were encouraged to come to this land of gold not only by the possible rewards of fortune but also because conditions in France were greatly upset following the Revolution of 1848 and political exiles and the unemployed were numerous.

Among the newly arrived French settlers were many who had suffered from the hardships of the long journey and were unable to work. Others returned from the placer mines in a state of physical exhaustion without funds or acquaintances, besides being unable to speak English. This distressful situation moved some of the more fortunate French residents of San Francisco under the leadership of Etienne Derbec, a journalist, to consider means of providing assistance to their compatriots. A meeting was held on December 21, 1851 for this purpose. Funds were raised and plans made to organize a Relief Society whose objectives would be as stated in their by-laws: "To provide for the needs of the sick, furnish assistance to Frenchmen as well as to citizens of other nationalities without resources, and to take care of their funeral expenses". A small wooden house was rented on the northeast cornier of Jackson and Mason Streets to provide temporary quarters for the Society's relief work. The sick were to be treated by Dr. d'Rivera who had volunteered his professional services without any compensation. His offer had been followed by similar ones from five other physicians.

On December 28, 1851 the Society's first permanent committee was elected and consisted of 16 members, one of them being the hospital physician. The treasurer announced that the membership reached 300 and the subscriptions amounted to $2,600. Three days later the committee was solemnly installed by M. Patrice Dillon, the first Consul General of France in San Francisco, who announced that the modest 20-bed hospital was ready to receive its first patient.

At first, the Society had a purely benevolent character and provided assistance without distinction to needy and sick members and nonmembers. Its charity extended to unfortunates of all nationalities. The Society realized, however, that its resources were not in keeping with its charitable intentions and that a limit would have to be placed on its liberal disbursements. It, therefore, proceeded to incorporate into its by-laws the principle of mutuality while maintaining, in a restricted sense, its original purpose. As a result of this decision, the Society, on April 23, 1853, adopted the name of "Societe Mutuelle et de Bienfaisance" or the Mutual and Benevolent Society. This new measure did not sufficiently improve its financial situation so that two years later the decision was taken to continue exclusively upon the principle of mutuality. Modifying its by-laws, it adopted the appellation under which it functions to this day and which characterizes the objective which it has never ceased to follow as "La Societe Francaise de Bienfaisance Mutuelle" of the French Mutual Benevolent Society.

In August 1853, the committee decided that its growth warranted more substantial quarters and purchased a lot on the corners of Bush and Taylor Streets for $2,500. M. Huerne, a distinguished architect and engineer who had worked with de Lesseps on the Panama Canal, drew the plans, without charge, for a hospital to accommodate 60 patients. A subscription brought in $9,000 and the building was completed in December, 1853 at a cost of $7,195.

The personnel of these new quarters consisted of a superintendent who received $80 per month; two male nurses at $45 each per month and a cook at $60. Two physicians, Drs. Huard and Lebatard, comprised the medical staff. Drugs were dispensed by Messrs. Guichard and Rioffrey at twenty-five cents per day per patient.

Immediately following the opening of the hospital, complaints poured in from the neighbors who did not approve of such an institution in their midst. They petitioned civic authorities to have the hospital removed outside the city limits. In an attempt to appease the complaints, the committee had an eight-foot-high wooden fence erected around the building. What effect this measure had upon the aroused tempers has not been revealed.

Growing pains began to be felt in 1857. The directors determined that these should be relieved by building a new hospital whose size and installations would be in harmony with the importance acquired by the Society. To finance this new project, 800 bonds of $25 denomination each were sold to the members. With other monies in hand, together with the proceeds from the sale of its Bush Street property, the third French Hospital was erected on Bryant Street, between 5th and Simmons, with a capacity of 60 beds. Its inauguration on March 15, 1858 was a civic affair and took place amidst much pomp and ceremony. The participants met in front of the Mechanics' Institute, at Market and Montgomery Streets, where the parade started. It was led by its Grand Marshal and his aides; all mounted and decked out with tricolor sashes. Then came the band behind which marched civic authorities, delegates from various organizations and corporations, officers of the army, then the hospital directors and members. They were followed by carriages conveying invited guests. The parade started off gaily amidst salvos of cannon fire and terminated in front of the hospital where a round of speeches dedicated the new institution. One serious accident marred the otherwise gay and successful event. One of the artillerymen, M. Pierre Manciet, lost an arm while discharging one of the cannons.

The cost of the new hospital amounted to $33,513 and included the installation of what was then considered the latest equipment, such as running water, ordinary baths, steam baths and windmills to pump the water.

In August 1858, a pharmacy was added to the hospital. In January 1859, the Italian Benevolent Society made arrangements with the French Hospital to have it give medical care to its members. This continued until 1861 when the project was turned over to the Italian Institute of Dr. Rottanzi.

The year following the construction of the new hospital, the number of members increased from 1,200 to 1,800. The number kept mounting in such proportions that, ten years later at the General Assembly of 1868, Mr. Alexander Weill raised the question of the advisability of procuring new grounds upon which to build a still larger hospital, as well as a home for the aged and invalid, which had been decided upon three years before. Upon the advice of M. Huerne, the architect, it was decided to add another story to the existing structure rather than resort to a new building at this time. This addition, in 1868, brought the capacity of the hospital to 100 beds.

In 1872, one physician was in charge of medical service at the hospital while another physician was added to the hospital staff. The mode of selecting doctors varied at different times; they were commissioned by the directors or elected by the members.

In 1878 the hospital acquired grounds for burial purposes. The site of this cemetery is described as having been one mile this side of the Seal Rocks and comprised four acres.

In this same year, the hospital's personnel was composed of the following: one superintendent, two druggists, a chief male nurse, five male nurses, two female nurses, two cooks, one gardener, one bath-house attendant, two day laborers and one house porter. The 21 employees received total salaries of $935 per month.

For a period of 27 years, the hospital continued to progress and took its place among the leading institutions of its kind on the Pacific Coast. It was finally realized, however, that the Bryant Street hospital was inadequate to meet the demands made upon it. In 1884, the proposition was considered to acquire a site in a more favorable location and of sufficient size upon which to build a more modern hospital containing the latest developments in medical installations.

The decision was made a few years later to purchase the present site of the French Hospital for the amount of $48,000. This was the full block on Geary Boulevard, bounded by the 5th and 6th Avenues and Anza Street in the rear. Early portraits of this site show two or three buildings in each direction, with acres of open space surrounding the hospital. It was surely considered to be on the outskirts of town, if not in the country.

Plans for the new structure were submitted by various architects after much study and research on their part to incorporate the latest and most advanced ideas in hospital construction. Up until that time most hospitals treated diseases of all types without any attempt to segregate contagious from non-contagious diseases and infections were readily transmitted. The plans submitted by a Franco-Californian, M.G. Morin-Goustiaux, in collaboration with M. Mooser, were chosen. A feature of the plans consisted of separating the various types of diseases according to their respective nature and to place them in buildings or pavilions isolated from each other in order to preclude the dangers of contagion. A credit of $200,000 was voted upon to finance the project and, on February 25, 1894, the cornerstone of the fourth hospital was laid, accompanied by solemn ceremonies and attended by the dignitaries of that period.

One year later the most modern hospital, with a capacity of 170 beds, on the Pacific Coast was ready to receive its first patients. It was regarded as a model in planning with its vast courts and gardens surrounding the various departments. Its equipment was considered the finest obtainable and the leading physicians of the city fought for the honor of becoming members of the staff. The School for Nursing was inaugurated with the new hospital. This was one of the first such schools, if not the first, to be started by a private hospital in San Francisco.

Over the next 68 years, although the outward appearance of the hospital did not change, extensive internal modifications were made. The surgical suite was enlarged and modernized, new clinics and laboratories opened, extensive radiographic and other equipment added, and many innovations installed. In 1926, an additional 20 beds brought the capacity of the hospital to 190 beds. These were all made to keep pace with the ever-changing improvements and developments in medical care, for the sole purpose of better serving the patients.

By the early 1950's, it had become obvious to the Board of Directors and the Medical Staff that the existing facilities could no longer be improved efficiently to maintain the highest standards of medical care. Medical technology had outpaced the building's abilities to accommodate change.

The occasion of the centennial celebration was used as an opportunity for fund raising for a new hospital. Although the Board would have enjoyed the opportunity to purchase a new site and build a new building, escalating land and construction costs forced a phased-in building program on the Geary site. In 1958, a Master Plan was completed with the assistance of Rex Whitaker Allen and John Carl Warnecke, Associated Architects, which proposed this phased construction.

In 1963, the first increment of the new French Hospital Medical Center Complex was opened with 170 beds and in 1964, the West Wing was added, bringing the capacity to 197 beds. In 1967, the Master Plan was revised to show the site plan currently in use.

A decision was reached to allow a group of the French Hospital Medical Staff doctors to lease a portion of the front of one block on which they would build a Medical Office Building, which would revert to the French Hospital free and clear of encumbrances at the end of 45 years.

This decision was based on two factors. First, the desire to have financial assistance in speeding the realization of the Medical Center Complex set out in our Master Plan. This was accomplished through lease agreement. Secondly, there was a desire to associate with the Medical Center Complex a group of highly qualified, carefully selected doctors who would commit their future to the Medical Complex, therefore adding materially to the prospect of its future success. This also was accomplished.

The Medical Office Building was owned by a Physicians' Limited Partnership in which each physician in the building purchased shares. The hospital retained the right of approval of each shareholder. Also, shares could not be sold without hospital approval. The building had 49 offices with 82 physicians. There was a waiting list for office space.

In 1971, the first stage of the Master Plan was finished with the completion of the Long-Term Care Facility. This building, bordering on 6th Avenue, housed 50 skilled nursing care beds, 50 continuing care beds and 46 rooms for well-aged care for retired members of the French Society. In 1976, the continuing care facility was closed. One half of that floor was converted to a new ambulatory care program, the Disability Evaluation and Treatment Center.

It is significant to note that through all these years and five building projects, the French Society, while being a non-profit corporation, did not, as did most hospitals, receive any outside assistance. In their 125 years of existence, they accepted no government funds, no foundation grants, held no medical or community fund drives and, in fact, have depended on their own operation and members for all financing of programs. This is particularly significant when we also note that hospital rates were competitive during all this period.

As French Hospital enters into its 126th year of continuous operation, it is proud of its accomplishments. It has well served the members of this community, as well as its own members. It has been a civic pride, as well as the pride of the French Colony. It has provided high standards of medical care at a low cost to thousands of families. It has served as a model demonstrating that institutions, free from governmental control, best serve the needs of the public. It pioneered the principle of voluntary health insurance in this country, which has subsequently been followed successfully by health insurance organizations throughout the nation.

We believe no Medical Center can be better than the caliber of its medical staff. Our Chief of Staff is a thoracic surgeon who, prior to coming to French, was the
Commanding Officer of Walther Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C. The Chief of Surgery is a professor level University of California physician who serves on several National Health committees. Our Chief of Pathology, as well as our Director of Medical Education, both left the University of California to join our staff full time. The Chief of Radiology was also formerly with the University of California and is recognized by his peers as one of the top five diagnostic radiologists in the country.

We have, therefore, selected our staff well and have attempted to involve these and many other highly qualified men and women in such a manner that their future is tied to ours. The French Society, which has the oldest continuous hospital history in San Francisco, is dedicated to a community effort in the health field. It is extremely proud of its 125 years of tradition and service.

Written 11-22-76 by Marie Louise Girerd     

 

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FFMRE
210 Post Street, Suite 401
San Francisco, CA 94108

Email: jpybernard@att.net

501 (C) 3, California Non-Profit Public Benefit Corporation