Solano Chronicles: Old Navy Hospital on Mare Island achieved national acclaim

Vallejo Times Herald
by Brendan Riley

Mare Island’s rich history as a site for medicine and medical innovation began with the arrival of the 20-gun sloop of war USS Warren on Sept. 18, 1854, two days after David Glasgow Farragut took charge as commandant of the U.S. Navy’s first permanent base on the West Coast.

The Warren was brought over from Sausalito for use as “storeship for accommodation of the yard.” That included service as a dispensary and hospital under direction of the ship’s assistant surgeon, John Mills Browne. That assignment made Browne the pioneer medical officer at Mare Island. The ship also was Farragut’s temporary home and the site of Sunday church services. Farragut moved into the newly built commandant’s quarters a year later.

When the frigate USS Independence arrived in October 1857, the Warren’s crew was transferred to the Independence which also served as a floating hospital, among other uses.

By 1862, Navy Dr. William S. Bishop had become the medical officer and was writing letters to superiors complaining about lack of heat and other conditions on the Independence that made it difficult for sick sailors to recover and return to their jobs. Those letters continued in 1863, with Bishop writing that the Independence, built during the War of 1812, was “a very unsuitable place to treat the sick — it is cold, wet and open to every wind that blows.”

The Navy then decided to house over the deck of the old ship. The result was described as something resembling Noah’s Ark, except that the Independence carried only Marines, brig prisoners, medics and medical patients. Also, the Mare Island commandant, Capt. T.O. Selfridge, ordered that an unused granary on the island be turned into a temporary 30-bed hospital. Doctors who operated on patients there included Gen. Mariano Vallejo’s son Platon. A few years later, part of a guard building near a ferry landing was relocated on an old Indian mound for use as a hospital “pest house.”

Work on what’s described in “A Long Line of Ships” as the first Mare Island hospital worthy of the name began in 1869, under the direction of Dr. Browne, who had returned to Mare Island to supervise the construction. He then served as the hospital’s first commanding officer after it opened in 1871. The Harvard-educated doctor went on to become surgeon general of the Navy in 1888. Also in 1871, the Navy appointed Elvina Baldwin as the hospital nurse and matron — the first woman in government employment at Mare Island.

The 3-story hospital had an estimated cost of $250,000. The million-and-a-half bricks used in the building, which could hold up to 250 patients, were made from clay dug at the site.

On Sept. 30, 1898, an earthquake measuring 6.5 on the Richter scale caused extensive damage on Mare Island. That included heavy damage to the hospital that led to construction of a new hospital completed in 1901.

Designed by W. M. Poindexter, the 1901 hospital building still stands. In a nod to the USS Independence, the shipyard’s second floating hospital, two of the ship’s big cannons are on display in front of the building. The hospital has been designated a National Historical Landmark.

The Naval Hospital was greatly expanded during the Spanish-American War, World War I and WWII. The hospital staff achieved national and international acclaim during WWII and later years for its orthopedic department, better known as the “amputee shop” or “brace shop.” The development and manufacture of plastic limbs, and the therapy that followed, served tens of thousands of disabled military personnel. The hospital also utilized innovative treatment methods for burn victims. Many famous people visited the hospital during the war, among them Eleanor Roosevelt and entertainers such as Bob Hope.

During WWII, there were more than 44,000 civilian workers employed on Mare Island. The main hospital buildings which held about 600 patients at a time prior to WWII reached a capacity averaging 2,300 patients in double bunks during the war. By 1946, less than a year after the war ended, the patient population was down to about 1,000. By 1950, there were only about 50 patients and the Navy decided to close the hospital. It was decommissioned in 1957.

After the hospital was closed, a regional medical dispensary remained in operation on the hospital grounds. Also, the Combat Systems Technical Schools Command was established there in 1962. The command averaged 1,400 officers, enlisted staff and student personnel.

Touro University California moved to the old hospital in 1999, three years after the Navy shut down the Mare Island shipyard. The school now has an enrollment of about 1,400 students. Touro offers graduate degrees in osteopathic medicine, pharmacy, physician assistant studies, nursing, public health and education. The university is a member of the Touro College and University System, Jewish-sponsored nonprofit institutions of higher and professional education.

Touro is utilizing several buildings for uses ranging from classrooms, a library and research labs to administrative offices and a dining hall. Campus tours can be arranged by calling 707-638-5800. But the historic 1901 hospital building is closed, in need of a costly repair and restoration job before it can be put to use again.

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