Thursday, July 24, 2014

Hillman Hospital & How It Became UAB Hospital


The oldest building in the UAB Medical Center, now known as “Old Hillman”, is located on the block bounded by 19th and 20th Streets and 6th and 7th Avenues South. The four-story stone and brick structure was dedicated in July, 1903, and named Hillman Hospital after local benefactor Thomas Hillman, President of the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company. The hospital was constructed on lots 1-6 of the block, purchased from John S. Cox. He had bought the land from the Elyton Land Company in 1877 for $250. A Victorian house on the property was used as the hospital’s first nursing dormitory.

                  Thomas T. Hillman Source: Encyclopedia of Alabama

Efforts to organize a charity hospital for the city had begun in 1884, and Hillman’s donations had helped fund several locations, including a 100-bed facility that burned in 1894. Hillman required that his support pay for wards for both white and black patients. Hillman Hospital was chartered by the state legislature in 1897 and operated by a Board of Lady Managers—wives of local businessmen, a group involved from the beginning as the Daughters of United Charity.




Hillman Hospital in 1908

            The four floors and basement were crowded with various facilities, including offices, reception rooms, a laundry, store rooms, and boiler and fuel room for the steam heat. Twelve private rooms and four adult and one child wards occupied most of the first and second floors. The third floor held a surgical amphitheater that could hold up to 80 students, sterilizing and ether rooms, two private operating rooms and more private patient rooms. The fourth floor held the kitchen (with dumb waiter access to other floors), nurses’ dormitory rooms, a dining hall and yet more private rooms.

            By 1924 over 4600 patients a year were treated at Hillman. Financial difficulties had continued, and in 1907 the land and building were sold to the Jefferson County Board of Revenue. An annex built in 1913 failed to relieve the overcrowding of the 90 beds that Dr. Will Mayo had noted on his visit in 1911.  Finally the “new” Hillman Building opened in 1928, followed eleven years later by a five story outpatient clinic.

Hillman Hospital complex, ca. 1929. The original structure on the right was erected in 1902 and the annex, in the middle, was added in 1913. On the left is the 1928 addition, or “new” Hillman. Source: Birmingham Public Library

            Those seats in the main surgical amphitheater of Hillman Hospital were filled by faculty and students from the Birmingham Medical College. The school was a proprietary college owned by nine prominent Birmingham physicians and opened in October 1894. The college and the Birmingham Dental College were first located in a five-story building on 21st Street North originally occupied by the Lunsford Hotel. The school had electric lighting, lecture rooms, several laboratories and operated a free dispensary. Students were also exposed to patients at the city charity hospital, infirmaries owned by faculty members and clinics in nearby towns.

                  Birmingham Medical College in 1912 Source: BhamWiki

            In 1902 the college constructed its new home next to Hillman Hospital and a two-story autopsy house behind it. By that time the school had 94 students who were required to study four terms instead of the original two. In 1910 the medical and dental schools merged to become the Birmingham Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical College. One of the school’s achievements was the 1899 graduation of Elizabeth White. She was the second female to graduate from an Alabama medical school, following Louisa Shepard who had graduated from the Grafenberg Medical Institute in Dadeville in the 1850s.

                                     Source: Historical Marker Database

            Despite improvements in facilities, funding and graduation requirements, the Birmingham Medical College closed in May, 1915. Six years earlier Abraham Flexner had inspected the Birmingham school and the Medical College of Alabama in Mobile. He and his team were touring the country gathering information on all the nation’s medical schools for the American Medical Association. His 1910 report was very critical of most of those schools, including the two in Alabama; many schools, especially proprietary ones, closed in the next few years. The Birmingham school’s owners sold it to the University of Alabama, which operated it until the final students graduated. After a move to Tuscaloosa, the University’s Medical College of Alabama opened in Birmingham in September, 1945, using Jefferson Hospital as its base of operations.

            Before that major change another building was constructed on the block in addition to the outpatient clinic already mentioned. In 1929 Hillman Hospital opened a nursing dormitory. The structure was renovated and reopened in July 1965 as the Roy R. Kracke Clinical Services Building. Kracke was the first dean of the Medical College of Alabama when it opened in Birmingham.



                              Roy R. Kracke, M.D. [1887-1950]
      Source: National Library of Medicine/Images in the History of Medicine

            By the 1930s another expansion of Hillman Hospital was desperately needed. The County Commission hired prominent local architect Charles H. McCauley to design a seven-story annex to cost $1.5 million in U.S. Public Works Administration funds. By the time the building was dedicated in December 1940, nine more floors were added at a final cost of $2.25 million.


         1939 architect's rendering of Jefferson Hospital Source: BhamWiki


            The new hospital was state-of-the-art and known as the finest hospital in the South. Two banks of high-speed elevators carried doctors, nurses, patients and others from floor to floor. The fifth floor was a maternity ward; the seventh floor featured eleven operating rooms. Both of those floors were air conditioned. The top two floors had living space for 150 nurses and 25 interns and resident physicians. From March 1942 until April 1944 two of the floors were used for secret work by the U.S. Army Replacement and School Command. Responsible for personnel training, the unit’s headquarters had been relocated to Birmingham from Washington, D.C., to protect it from possible enemy attack.


            Four years later the facility became the Jefferson-Hillman Hospital where the new Medical College of Alabama would soon be located. The UA Board of Trustees renamed it University Hospital in 1955 and finally Jefferson Tower in 1979. By September 2010 all inpatient activities had been relocated to the new North Pavilion hospital complex and other areas.

Further Reading

Pennycuff, Tim L. "Hillman Hospital" Encyclopedia of Alabama and its list of sources


This piece appeared on the DiscoverBirmingham.org site in October 2013.

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