Through the Viewfinder with a Photo of Angelus Hospital, Los Angeles, 1906

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

One of the many astounding transformations in American life in the early 20th century was the profound progress made in medical science and today’s featured object from the Museum’s collection reflects a local example. The photo is of Angelus Hospital, established by a publicly traded company founded by doctors and the well-known attorney Earl Rogers and which was opened on 14 May 1906 in a $200,000 complex on Washington Boulevard, between Maple and Trinity streets, that included a structure for the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

The Angelus Hospital Association, formed for the purpose of building the complex, purchased, in February 1904 for $12,500, a parcel on the south side of Washington from William Niles through the real estate firm of Edward D. Silent and Company. In late April, the Los Angeles Express featured an architectural rendering and some detail on the hospital, designed by John C. Austin and Frederick G. Brown.

Los Angeles Times, 14 February 1904.

The former, who’d been in the Angel City since the early Nineties, was best known for his work on the Potter Hotel in Santa Barbara, while his Fremont Hotel at Olive and 4th on Bunker Hill was a recent example of his work. Later, he worked on such major structures as the Shrine Auditorium and City Hall. Brown was a more recent arrival from Chicago and the duo were at work on the Harvard Military School, now part of Harvard-Westlake School, and additions at the University of Southern California along with residences, but they were considered specialists “of fireproof construction and hotel building,” according to a profile in the Los Angeles Herald of 3 September 1905.

It is worth adding that the same issue had an instructive chart of the “Total Value of Improvements Annually Since 1894” in Los Angeles and which showed that, while there was a major increase of nearly two-thirds between 1894 and 1895, the rest of the Nineties included a steep drop in 1896 and lesser declines through the end of the decade. As the 20th century (this means 1901, folks) dawned, however, another great leap of about 60% took place, with another doubling in 1902, growth of another third the following year, and a modest increase for 1904. The first five months of 1905, however, saw another 70% jump compared to the same period in the previous year, so the boom of the first half of the decade was remarkable.

Los Angeles Express, 23 April 1904.

The paper noted that the cost of the two structures was to be about $150,000 with the hospital facing Trinity Street and the college fronting on Washington. Each was to be three stories with a basement and of iron, brick and stone construction in an Italian Renaissance style, including a dramatic Neoclassical entrance with massive Greek columns and Gothic-like quoins on the corners. Lime used in the stone construction was quarried from a rare local source, what is known as Elephant Hill in the former Spadra area of southwest Pomona, just east of the 57 Freeway. With what was considered fireproof partitions and stairways and metal lathing, this up-to-date complex was to include rooms for 100 patients in two wards in the hospital, along with four operating rooms. The floors were to be tile and glass slabs covering the walls in these spaces, which were to have rounded corners, as with all areas of the facility, for safety.

Oak was used for corridor flooring, while those in the rooms were of maple and all of this highly polished. The company was to operate in its own electric, steam heating, laundry and ice plants and a kitchen located, along with these service components, in the basement. A rooftop garden and solarium were part of patient recovery so they “may enjoy the sunshine, or the breezes.” Plenty of space was provided on the site for gardens with lawns and shrubs and which “will constitute one of the attractions of the institution.”

Times, 19 May 1904.

The company’s president was Dr. Charles B. Nichols, with the vice-president being Dr. Fred C. Shurtleff and the treasurer was Dr. Charles W. Bryson, while other key figures were Dr. James H. Shults and Rogers. Bryson was a flashy figure who had a diamond in one of his teeth and, consequently, was known as “Diamond Tooth Charlie,” along with immaculately waxed and curled mustache ends and a handsome carriage drawn by a pair of white horses. Most of these men were also trustees of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the second medical school in the region after that at the University of Southern California.

In mid-July, it was announced that Austin had finalized a contract with F.L. Spaulding to build the pair of structures, with the hospital to cost just under $115,000 and the college to be not far above $33,000. By the end of September, permits were pulled with the city and, of course, the original completion dates of October for the college and December for the hospital were wildly off. Financing was largely done with stock sales, in addition to the private resources of the company’s owners, and one broker offered shares at 80 cents each.

Los Angeles Record, 13 August 1904.

The Los Angeles Times of 8 October 1905 provided an update on the hospital and college projects, which noted that the former building was finished, but would not be opened for another few months, while the college was in its second year of operation. In fact, the first class of 1905 featured six graduates and some 30 students, while the second graduating class comprised three newly-minted doctors, including the Japanese-American Rokuro Koharu, a graduate from the University of Tokyo doing post-graduate work at the college.

By this time, it was reported that the project would cost $175,000, but the capital in the corporation was at $200,000. The paper added that “there are certain entirely new features about this hospital,” including its own 255-foot deep well “with 175 feet of soft, pure water in the hole.” This water was then condensed from steam and sterilized and could be used at boiling temperatures for medical purposes or cooled for drinking water. Not only was there an ice-making plant and self-generated electricity for lighting and power, but a cold storage room to store food for extended periods. The article concluded that the structures were “solid” and “built in the best style,” adding that “the appointments are all high class.”

Los Angeles Herald, 3 September 1905.

By early 1906, Nichols shifted from being president of the college to manager of the hospital and Bryson assumed the role of dean of the former. A meeting of the executive board of the latter led to the decision to offer a free clinic opened each day, as many eastern medical schools did. Having the hospital and college on the same property, of course, was of great benefit to both as students had the “opportunity to study every type of disease at close range” and “the college will have a ward in the new hospital.”

The Times of 10 May 1906 announced that

After more than a year of building activities, there now stands ready for service in this city one of the finest life-saving stations ever opened in the Southwest.

A formal opening for public inspection was to be held on the 14th with three periods of visiting hours during the day, though there was to be no program. The cost had jumped from the fall to over $200,000 and innovations were again highlighted, including the statement that it “has the latest ideas in hospital building” and was “as near fireproof as is possible with latter-day building materials.” The use of wood was minimized and even the floors were laid atop fireproof underlayment.

Herald, 3 September 1905.

The basement was again described with its power plant, cold storage, laundry and ice-making facility, but also noted was the dining room for nurses and employees. The first level included a parlor and receptions rooms; the general office; doctors’ consulting rooms; and two wards with room for 20 patients, along with 17 patient rooms with connecting bathrooms. The second floor had another 21 single and double rooms for patients; two operating rooms; an anesthetic room; a diet kitchen; bathrooms; and storage rooms, while the top level was largely similar. At the roof level was the “sun parlor” for patient use.

A new feature had to do with ventilation, with which “fresh air is admitted through openings in the sides of the walls and passes through antiseptic gauze” while any “foul air is pumped out of all rooms by air pump and forced into a main shaft the is carried [out] above the roof.” Each patient room was fitted with hot and cold water so “that portable baths may be used at a moment’s notice.”

Times, 8 October 1905.

Another innovative element was courtesy of Dr. Nichols and involved that system of distilling water briefly alluded to above, though here it was reported that the condensed exhaust steam was filtered, boiled a second time and the resulting water separated with one portion at 48 degrees and the other at 212. The paper noted, “thus any room in the building has available boiling water on the instant, distilled and ready for use in any emergency; and the system also provides the purest of water for drinking purposes.”

When opened, the facility would be ready to admit sixty patients, but the project capacity was double that number and it was added that “all classes of general hospital service will be provided for, with the exception of all contagious diseases.” In its brief notice of the opening, the Los Angeles Herald of the 12th noted

the hospital just completed is declared . . . to be the most modern in every way of any on the entire coast . . . Every modern scientific appliance that skilled surgery demands has been installed and no expense has been spared to build and equip the institution in a manner that will make it worthy of Los Angeles.

The Herald‘s discussion of the opening, from the following day’s edition, included the report that some 2,000 people visited to see the 60 rooms in three wards and admire the many remarkable features. Another one not previously mentioned in news reports was that each room had a telephone and a call system for seeking help from a nurse. Moreover, as observed by Dr. Nichols, each call was registered so that, if there was a complaint about the time a nurse reached the room and turned off the call light, it could be traced.

Times, 10 May 1906.

The paper reiterated that “its equipment is more thorough, probably, and its arrangement more complete than that of any hospital in Los Angeles and it has features that no other hospital in the United States has instituted.” The Herald concluded, “if all hospitals were as pleasantly arranged and as thoroughly equipped . . . those unfortunates who spend many days as invalids would have pleasant recollections of bright, airy rooms with everything that could be wished for in the days which they spent in hospitals.” A Pomona doctor later told that city’s Review, “if there is anything better in Chicago . . . I have never seen it.”

In its coverage, also on the 15th, of the opening, the Times stated that “the large building was thronged” and “the moment the hospital was ready patients began to arrive and several operations were performed.” Nichols was quoted as saying, “the people came in every kind of a conveyance known except an air ship [the first airplane flight was just three years earlier]” and he went on to note that “we have been showing crowds through all day long and they have been surprised at what they saw, and we have heard nothing but congratulations.” Singled out was Dr. Shults who “has been most prominent in establishing the hospital, and securing the funds for its construction and equipment.”

Times, 15 May 1906.

Shults, in fact, was an unwitting participant in a strange situation that occurred after he left the grand opening to head home to his West Adams Heights residence west of the hospital. As Shults’ brother prepared to turn left from Washington Boulevard onto the street where the doctor resided (the site of his house is under the 10 Freeway), a car that left a beer garden and then followed behind tried to make an abrupt stop and rolled over.

Of the seven people in the vehicle, one man pried off the license plate and ran off, as did a couple that slowly rose from the ground “and stole away into the darkness.” The four remaining occupants were taken to Dr. Shults’ house, where he tended to their injuries and it was reported “all were considerably under the influence of liquor and made a mess of the doctor’s rooms.”

Herald, 15 May 1906.

Without a word, including thanks for the care, the quartet headed out before one man muttered quietly: “I don’t want anything said about this. I am a married man and my wife ought to be kept in ignorance.” The two men of the group righted the car, made some brief repairs to the badly damaged vehicle, and drove off, with the thinking that the car was stolen for a joyride.

As for the college, it opened much sooner, in October 1904, and its much more modest structure was accounted “one of the handsomest of its kind in California” and among its elements were a “commodious amphitheater, a modern dissecting room, excellent lecture rooms, a chemical laboratory with every convenience known to the teaching of modern chemistry, and separate bacteriological, histological and pathological laboratories.” In 1909, it merged with the deeply-in-debt USC medical school and is considered an ancestor of today’s highly successful Keck School of Medicine.

A real photo postcard of the hospital, likely from not long after its opening, judging from the youth of the landscaping. from the Homestead’s holdings.

Lastly, in February 1906, just prior to the opening of the hospital, Earl Rogers lectured to the college’s students and those of the USC medical college and it is notable that the attorney cautioned against too much use of anesthesia, arguing that “when you give an anesthetic you take human life in your hands” and added “the use of dangerous drugs is a condition to be resorted to only in the grave extremes.” He even rhetorically asked, “what’s the use in giving you advice? You young men will start out and take your medicine chests and do a lot of harm with your ‘dope.'”

The Times added that “there was a fusillade of hot shot for the practitioner who gives his patients opiates on the least provocation, and thus helps to fasten upon them the horrible morphine, cocaine and other drug habits.” It quoted the lawyer as saying that, while legal liability was one thing, there was the moral dimension for “any man who initiates a human being on the road to perdition—and that’s the drug road.”

Express, 14 February 1906.

With the recent news that fentanyl overdoses have pushed such incidents to record levels, with some 108,000 fatalities in 2021, this being a 15% increase over the prior year, these statements have particular resonance. So, too, does another Rogers commentary on another crucial contemporary issue with married abortion with eugenics:

There are certain children that never ought to be permitted to come into the world. The world is too full already of bad children. I believe the time will come when it will be generally admitted that physicians have the right, and have before them as a duty, the prevention of the coming into this world of children which it is morally certain will be a burden to themselves and to society.

Rogers also discussed patient-doctor privilege in legal cases and opined that “expert opinion” by physicians was of “very little use” and suggested that, after the so-called handwriting expert, the “medical expert” offered “a haphazard opinion” that was “the rankest humbug” in this area of court proceedings. Still, the controversial lawyer concluded “with a beautiful tribute to the medical profession, placing it first in all the noble works of humanity.”

As Cecilia Rasmussen reported in a 1993 column about the hospital, Angelus had a strong reputation for many years and operated under at least three other names before it closed in 1985, at which time the building was condemned and raised. The block now includes retail establishments and no one would ever know or guess that, well over a century ago, a hospital that was considered the most modern and advanced of its kind was completed on that site and was a testament to the phenomenal transformation of health care by the early years of the 20th century.

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