Wo/Men at Work: Nurses and Babies, Clara Barton Hospital, Los Angeles, 1923

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today’s “Wo/Men at Work” edition highlights a snapshot photo from the Homestead’s collection showing three nurses holding babies on the roof of the Clara Barton Hospital in Los Angeles in 1923.  During that period, there were few professional vocations available to women, but nursing was certainly one of them.

The hospital was opened in 1904 by Dr. Herbert P. Barton (1866-1925), who graduated from a medical college in Philadelphia and worked in New York City and Denver before settling a practice in Ontario in 1897.  A few years later, he, his wife and their son moved to Los Angeles where Barton worked for the Fraelick Sanatorium, which specialized in treating patients with tuberculosis at a three-story building at Pico Boulevard and Hope Street.

Los Angeles Times, 8 July 1904.

When the city approved an ordinance restricting the location of such institutions, the sanatorium closed and Barton took over the building and opened, in summer 1904, the hospital named for his great-aunt, Clara Barton (1821-1912), who achieved fame as an independent nurse on the battlefield during the Civil War and who was a  founder in 1881 and first president of the American Red Cross.  It was noted that Herbert worked at the Red Cross under his aunt and was involved in helping victims of the notorious Johnstown flood in Pennsylvania in 1889 and work in the South Seas.

The Clara Barton Hospital proved so successful that it moved after a couple of years to a new location, formerly Deaconess Hospital, on Olive between 4th and 5th streets close to Central Park, renamed Pershing Square in 1918.  The new facility had 60 beds, a significant increase over the old one.  As Los Angeles grew rapidly, the hospital was, by the early 1920s, the only remaining facility of its kind in downtown.

Los Angeles Herald, 29 April 1906.

The intention originally was to expand the hospital significantly by erecting two height-limit (11 stories was the maximum by ordinance for aesthetic reasons) structures, providing for a few hundred beds, an indicator of dramatic growth for the facility.  It was decided by 1924, however, to reorganize the institution, which was controlled by Herbert Barton, and bring in a committee of heavy hitters in the business community and other local leaders for a drive to build a new hospital.

A site was selected just west of downtown, but this eventually was abandoned, despite published architectural renderings and announced plans for construction to begin.  Led by Harry M. Haldeman, a major figure in civic affairs and grandfather of the notorious H.R. Haldeman, who was President Richard Nixon’s chief-of-staff and Watergate featured character, the idea eventually morphed into something new.

Los Angeles Times, 16 October 1925.

That is, the Clara Barton initiative was tied in with a separate women’s hospital project.  By 1925, it was decided to locate both hospitals in a single complex near Vermont Avenue and Beverly Boulevard and a major fundraising campaign resulted in the opening of the Hollywood Clara Barton Memorial Hospital the following year.

Herbert Barton, who’d been ill for a number of years, died in late 1925 before the new institution opened. During the Great Depression the facility faced closure. A benefactor stepped in and wanted a Presbyterian affiliated hospital, which took over the complex in 1937.  Known as Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, the new facility operated independently until 1989 when it merged with Queen of Angels Hospital.

Los Angeles Times, 1 January 1924.

An integral part of the Clara Barton Hospital and its successors through 1989 was a school of nursing and, in January 1924, not long after this photo was taken, a description of the nursing school was published in the Los Angeles Times in its New Year’s 1924 edition.

The piece was titled “Professional Nursing is an Art” and it observed that “every educated and independent young woman of today is choosing a profession,” a sentiment that would have been excessively frowned upon in Clara Barton’s early years.  Interestingly, this was followed with the statement that, “perhaps this is the result of changes under way in the economic affairs of the world, especially true with reference to the United States.”

For “the bright and progressive student,” nursing provided many opportunities and

Professional nursing is an art, and a woman must be trained to meet the great demands of her calling.  This systematic training can be received only in hospitals and under the direct supervision of trained teachers.  It is the aim of all those who are interested in hospital training to elevate the standards of nursing education.

Herbert Barton observed that there was a need for nurses in industry, public schools, and public health, as well as in social work.  While sentiments expressed here certainly marked a dramatic change from previous decades, they still reflected a view that nursing, along with education, was one of the very few fields available to women, however “education and independent; bright and progressive.”

Nurses And Babies Clara Barton Hospital Los Angeles 2013.264.1.1
This snapshot photo from the Homestead’s collection shows three nurses with babies on the roof of the Clara Barton Hospital in 1923.

It is not known if the photo is of students or recently graduated nurses.  On the reverse are the names of the three women: “Mrs. Hayser;” “M. Mason;” and “Violet Sarsi” as well as a notation of “Hospital Babies / Taken on roof of / Clara Barton Hospital / Los Angeles / 1923.”

Whether they were trainees, new graduates or experienced nurses, these women reflect the growing role of females in the working world during the Roaring Twenties, when so much of American society was transforming in new and exciting ways.

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