History of Mass General

Twenty-two historic points of interest paint a panorama of the medical history of Massachusetts General Hospital.

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Stop 1: George Robert White Memorial Building
George Robert White Memorial Building

Since its 1939 opening, the White Building, has been the "front door" of the hospital. A thirteen story structure in the form of a cross, it was designed by the architectural firm of Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch, and Abbott.

Funds for the building came from the 1930 will of Mrs. Harriet J. Bradbury and the 1922 will of her brother, for whom the building was named. George Robert White, a self-made man, had founded Cuticura Corporation and established two charitable funds, including the Humanitarian Fund, from which the Massachusetts General Hospital gift derived.

Mass General demolished the Bigelow Operating Building and the X-ray Building to clear space for the new structure. The White Building originally housed the hospital telephone exchange, surgical offices and labs, operating rooms, an X-ray Lab, and eight floors of wards and private rooms for surgical patients. A kitchen and dining rooms occupied the basement. The ground floor housed administrative offices, general admission and the Emergency Ward.

It was through this White Building lobby that victims of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire entered the hospital on the fateful night of November 28, 1942.

The White Building was for many years the tallest building at Mass General and a highly visible component of the Boston skyline.

Stop 2: Horse-Drawn Ambulance
Horse-Drawn Ambulance

After the Civil War, non-military hospitals started using horse-drawn ambulance services for their patients.

In 1873 Mass General purchased a one-horse ambulance "to be kept in readiness for prompt service on call...in sending for physicians and patients."

Its duties included picking up non-contagious patients and fetching doctors out of bed at night for emergencies. For many years a docile animal known affectionately as "Old White Horse" pulled the ambulance. It was said that at night physicians could hear the clumping of his heavy hooves on Beacon Hill cobblestones from many blocks away.

The hospital acquired this ambulance in 1888 to replace the original 1873 model. It was replaced in turn by electric, steam, and eventually gasoline-driven ambulances.

Stop 3: Old Wharf and Pilings
Stop 3: Old Wharf and Pilings

Today the Charles River is nearly 1,000 feet to the west of the hospital. Until about 1860, however, the rivers' edge extended as far as the fragment of stone wharf seen below. The wharf served as a landing for patients and supplies arriving at the hospital by boat, often the most convenient and reliable means of transportation at that time. As Boston's population grew, the city filled in waterfront areas, creating new land.

Along the Charles River, the city expanded westward, covering the wharves and changing the course of the river. The pilings seen below provided a firm foundation for construction of additional hospital buildings near the riverbank, where bedrock could not be reached.

The piling marked "W" once supported the foundation of Walcott House, a nurses' dormitory. That marked "H" supported the foundation of Harvard Medical School, which was located near Mass General between 1846 and 1883.

Stop 4: Development of X-Rays
Stop 4: Development of X-Rays

Wilhelm Roentgen's discovery of the X-ray in 1895 in Germany inspired Mass General photographer Walter Dodd to try his own experiments.

He soon produced the first radiograph taken at an American hospital using a small X-ray tube and a hand-cranked static machine normally used to generate current for electrical treatments.

The resulting image, which showed the bone structure of a hand, greatly impressed hospital staff.

As the scope and technique of X-ray experimentation advanced and the diagnostic applications became apparent, Dodd was inspired to study for a medical degree. In 1907 he became Mass General's first Roentgenologist. In the early days of X-rays the importance of dosage limits was not well understood, and Dodd's experiments on his own hands resulted in severe radiation burns. He died in 1916 of cancer after 50 operations had removed his damaged fingers bit-by-bit.

Stop 5: Bulfinch Building and Bulfinch Lawn
Stop 5: Bulfinch Building and Bulfinch Lawn

The Bulfinch Lawn was once known as Prince's Pasture, part of a site purchased by the trustees of Mass General for the purpose of constructing a general hospital building.

They engaged Charles Bulfinch, Boston's most prolific and noted architect, to create the design, incorporating a giant portico with Ionic columns and a stepped dome. The building was erected under the direction of Alexander Parris, who was hired by Bulfinch when the latter was called to Washington to supervise the construction of the Capitol building.

The cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1818, and construction completed in 1823. The dome still houses its original surgical amphitheater, the hospital's operating room from 1821 to 1867, known today as the Ether Dome in commemoration of the world's first public demonstration of surgical anesthesia in 1846.

Stop 6: Models of the Mass General Campus
Stop 6: Models of the MGH Campus

In 1817 trustees purchased for the General Hospital a choice building site on the Shawmut peninsula between Blossom Street and the eastern bank of the Charles River.

Unpaved streets and wooden sidewalks characterize the earlier model, when transportation was by horse and waterways. Patients were often brought to Mass General by boat landing at the hospital's wharf. The area between the hospital and the Charles River was for many years known as the Mass General flats.

Stop 7: A Photographic Album
Stop 7: A Photographic Album

A Photographic Album, a collection of images from Mass General's Archive and Special Collections, depicts daily life at the hospital from 1840s to 1940s. Some of the photos - in particular the daguerreotypes, which were printed on glass negatives - had not been seen for more than 100 years when they were discovered in the now demolished Moseley Building.

Stop 8: The Ether Dome
Stop 8: The Ether Dome

The Ether Dome was Mass General's surgical amphitheater between 1821 and 1867. Dr. William T.G. Morton, a Boston dentist, made medical history here in Oct. 16, 1846, when he administered ether anesthetic to patient Gilbert Abbott just before Dr. John Collins Warren removed a tumor from his neck. Abbott slept comfortably during the operation and upon awakening announced that he had felt no pain. News of this first public demonstration of surgical anesthesia spread rapidly, transforming medical practice throughout the world. Learn more about the Ether Dome

Stop 9: The Chapel
Stop 9: The Chapel

The original Chapel at Mass General grew out of the fundraising efforts of Bishop William Lawrence of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, who sent out 1,500 handwritten letters to potential donors in 1939. The resulting Gothic Revival Chapel opened in 1941 on the first level of the Baker Memorial Building, which was demolished in 1992. The present Chapel is constructed according to the same design and incorporates the original stained glass windows by Charles J. Connick and Associates of Boston. Note the influence of the John LaFarge windows at Trinity Church, Boston, and the Tree of Life motif, echoing the west windows at Chartres Cathedral in France. The Mass General Chapel is meant to be a place of refuge, prayer or mediation for people of all beliefs. As such, it contains no fixed religious symbols.

Stop 10: The Baker Memorial Building
Stop 10: The Baker Memorial Building

The Baker Memorial Building, erected in 1930 and demolished in 1992, was a 325-bed facility for patients of moderate means. Patients were charged a single fee for all services, adjusted on a sliding scale according to their ability to pay. This payment plan, revolutionary in its day and widely copied by other hospitals, gradually became obsolete with the emergence of medical insurance coverage. A bronze plaque is the original sign for the Baker Memorial. Note also the gallery of commemorative historical photographs.

Stop 11: The Bradlee Operating Theater
Stop 11: The Bradlee Operating Theater

In 1888 Mass General built the first building in the United States specifically designed and constructed for aseptic, or sterile, surgery. The Bradlee Operating Theater in Bradlee Ward E stood on this site from 1888 to 1955. Dr. J. Collins Warren performed the first aseptic operation at Mass General, and one of the first in the United States, in the Bradlee Theater in 1889. The imposition of rigid rules for maintaining a sterile facility greatly improved a patient's chances for recovery, opening the door to major advances in the surgeon's art.

Stop 12: Mass General Nursing School
Stop 12: MGH Nursing School

The Thayer Building was erected in 1883 as the first permanent home for Mass General nurses. Established in 1873, the Boston Training School for Nurses was the third nursing school in the United States to be associated with a general hospital. This relationship allowed the nurses-in-training to receive their practical education on the wards of Mass General. The school advanced rapidly in effectiveness and prestige under the guidance of Linda Richards, the first school-trained nurse in the United States. In 1896 Mass General formally adopted the school, known as the Massachusetts General Hospital Training School for Nurses. The training school closed its doors 1981. The uniforms pictured (from 1922) illustrate the three stages in the education of a nurse: from left, student, preliminary nurse and graduate nurse.

Stop 13: The Warren Family
Stop 13: The Warren Family

The Warren family of Boston has been associated with many notable events in the history of American medicine. General Joseph Warren, MD, (1741-1775), a distinguished physician, died in action at the Battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolution while attending the wounded. His brother Dr. John Warren (1753-1815) founded Harvard Medical School in 1782. Among Dr. John Warren's 19 children was Dr. John Collins Warren, (1778-1856) who co-founded Mass General with Dr. James Jackson in 1811 and was the surgeon at the first public demonstration of surgical anesthesia in 1846. His son, Dr. Jonathan Mason Warren (1811-1867), was a pioneer in the field of plastic surgery. Dr. J. Collins Warren (1842-1927) was instrumental in introducing aseptic surgery to America in 1888. John Warren (1874-1928), son of J. Collins, is famous for his work in anatomy, including the production of a noted anatomical atlas.

Stop 14: Phillips House
Stop 14: Phillips House

The Phillips House, or Private Ward, was built in 1917 to accommodate well-to-do patients. At the time, patients who could afford to receive medical attention at home usually did so. Mass General trustees set up a "luxury" section in the Phillips House to attract wealthy patients, whose positive experiences in the Phillips House encouraged them to make contributions to the hospital, supporting research and charity wards. The Phillips House had 94 private rooms, graced by sun decks and other amenities. The building's name was changed to Founders House in 1990 when the private patient rooms were moved to the Ellison Building's top-three floors, which continue to be known as Phillips House.

Stop 15: The Mass General Charter
Stop 15: The MGH Charter

On August 20, 1810, Dr. James Jackson and Dr. John Collins Warren proceeded to distribute a circular letter to various influential and wealthy men in the Boston area regarding the need for a general hospital. The idea grew and a bill was introduced to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Enacted on February 25, 1811, the bill incorporated James Bowdoin and 55 other citizens as the Massachusetts General Hospital Corporation, empowered to own real estate and other property, to "sue and be sued," and to "have and use a common seal". Mass General was obliged by the charter to undertake the care of "such lunatick and sick persons as may hereafter be chargeable to the Commonwealth." The legislature gave Mass General the former seat of colonial government known as Province House and authorized the corporation to sell it for the purpose of financing the hospital.

The plan called for the establishment of a general hospital (now Mass General) and an asylum for the mentally ill (now McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.)

The War of 1812 impaired fund raising and delayed actual construction of the hospital. The asylum accepted its first patients in 1818. The general hospital opened for patient care in 1821.

Stop 16: Old Connecting Corridor and Out-Patient Building
Stop 16: Old Connecting Corridor and Out-Patient Building

This barrel-vaulted corridor once connected several hospital buildings that no longer exist: the Weld Ward (1902), the Orthopaedics Ward (1907) near the present-day site of the Vincent Hospital and the Moseley Memorial Building (1916), located where the Wang Ambulatory Care Center stands today. Many early 20th century Mass General buildings had halls with arches and vaults made of Guastavino tile, like that seen here. This remnant is the last surviving example of a style once prevalent at the hospital.

The bronze plaque seen to the left was the original sign for the Out-Patient Building, which first opened in 1903 and has served Mass General in many capacities for nearly a century. The building is known today as the Clinics Building.

Stop 17: First Department of Social Services
Stop 17: First Department of Social Services

The Clinics Building, formerly known as the Out-Patient Building, was the original home of the hospital's Department of Social Service. Established in 1905 by Dr. Richard Cabot, it was the first medical social work program in the world, and became the model upon which all similar hospital programs were based. The first Social Service "office" was a single table behind two white screens in a well-traveled corner of the building. In 1907 Ida Cannon, a social service volunteer at Mass General while attending the Boston School for Social Workers, became chief of the Hospital Social Service. She remained in that position until 1945. Cabot, Cannon and their successors recognized that patients do not leave behind other problems when hospitalized and that hospitals have a responsibility to identify and help resolve non-medical factors underlying health problems.

Stop 18: The Vincent Hospital
Stop 18: The Vincent Hospital

The Vincent Hospital has been the gynecological service of Mass General since 1942. Following the death in 1887 of Mary Anne Vincent, a beloved Boston actress, a group of her friends set out to commemorate her in some worthwhile manner. Working in cooperation with Bishop Phillips Brooks of Boston's Trinity Church, the friends raised funds to establish a hospital and dispensary for women, which opened in 1891 in a house at 44 Chambers St. The Vincent Memorial Hospital moved to South Huntington Avenue in 1907 and to a surgical ward at Mass General in 1942. After World War II, Mass General built the Vincent-Burnham Building to accommodate the Gynecological Service. In 1994 the Vincent and Mass General welcomed an obstetrical service back to the hospital after a hiatus of more than 40 years.

Stop 19: The Charles Street Jail
Stop 19: The Charles Street Jail

Originally known as the Suffolk County Jail, the Charles Street Jail was constructed between 1848 and 1851 in accordance with the Auburn Plan first used for English jails in the 1790s. Humanitarian ideals inspired the Auburn Plan, which incorporated radiating wings to provide adequate ventilation and natural light for inmates and allowed segregation of prisoners by sex and category of offense. There have been many changes to the building since the 19th century, including the enlargement of wings and construction of a brick wall to replace an earlier brick-and-iron fence. In 1991 Charles Street prisoners were moved to a new county jail on Nashua Street in Boston and Mass General bought the building and surrounding land. The jail is listed in the state and national Registers of Historic Places.

Stop 20: Former Site of Harvard Medical School
Stop 20: Former Site of Harvard Medical School

Since 1821 Mass General has been closely affiliated with Harvard as a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The fourth home of the hospital was located on North Grove Street near this site between 1846 and 1883. Before moving to the location near Mass General, Harvard Medical School had been known as Massachusetts Medical College. The school has been located in the Longwood Medical area of Boston since 1906.

Harvard President Charles W. Eliot reformed medical education here in the 1870s by expanding the course of study to three years and instituting rigorous exams.

Boston society was profoundly shocked in 1849 when Harvard Medical School Professor John W. Webster murdered his creditor Dr. George Parkman, a member of the Mass General visiting staff, in the school's chemistry lab. Parkman had hounded the professor for repayment of a debt. Webster attempted to cover up his crime by burning Parkman's remains in the laboratory stove. Bostonians considered the crime, cover-up and ensuing trial particularly scandalous because the participants were "gentlemen."

Stop 21: Resident Physician's House
Stop 21: Resident Physician's House

The administrative head of Mass General in its early years was a superintendent, not a doctor. A major administrative overhaul in 1858 resulted in the creation of the resident physician's post and the abolishment of the superintendent's position. The first resident physician was Dr. Benjamin Shaw, who lived in apartments located in the Bulfinch Building. The house seen here was designed by Carl Fehmer and constructed for resident physician Dr. John W. Pratt in 1891 to accommodate his growing family. Originally located at the corner of Blossom and Allen streets, it was connected by tunnel to the Bulfinch, the hospital's main inpatient building in the 19th century. The Resident Physician's House has been moved twice to allow for construction of other hospital facilities, most recently in 1981.

Stop 22: The Moseley Memorial Building
Stop 22: The Moseley Memorial Building

The Moseley Memorial Building (1916-1979) stood on land now occupied by the Wang Ambulatory Care Center. Mass General changed its main entrance from Blossom Street to Fruit Street when Moseley opened. At different times the building housed the Emergency Ward, the Social Service Department, the General Store, administrative offices, quarters for residents and house officers, the Blood Bank and the Treadwell Library. The Mass General Blood Bank, located in the Moseley Building from 1942 to 1948, was instrumental in the treatment of victims of the disastrous Cocoanut Grove fire in November 1942. The Treadwell Library was converted to a ward when Mass General admitted 800 cases of influenza during the deadly epidemic of 1918.

 
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