Tag Archives: Hospital

The Day North Billerica’s Hospital Nearly Burnt Down, 1938

From the Aftermath of the 1938 New England Hurricane:  Storm Debris (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

From the Aftermath of the 1938 New England Hurricane: Storm Debris (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

In the wake of the New England Hurricane of 1938, Oscar Grenier found work with the W.P.A. cleaning up storm damage near the Farnan Private Hospital for the Aged on North Billerica’s Mt. Pleasant Street.  Grenier first noticed the smoke rising from the hospital just after 10 AM on September 30, 1938.  He, George Lindsay, and Robert Louvering, all W.P.A. workers from Billerica, rushed into the burning hospital, up to its second floor, and discovered flames engulfing a bedroom.  The men began pulling the patients, all between 60 and 92 years old, through the smoke and flames to the safety of the hospital’s porch.

Oliver Damon, of Mt. Pleasant Street, saw the commotion, ran 500 yards to the corner of Mt. Pleasant Street and Billerica Avenue and pulled the alarm box.  Rushing back to the fire, he helped the other men carry patients, some against their will, from the burning hospital to his house across the street.   Some were in their beds, others in their wheelchairs.  Some were blind or suffering from shock.  One had no legs.

From the 1889 Middlesex Co. Atlas.  At the time, the future Farnan Hosptial was owned by F. Clarke

From the 1889 Middlesex Co. Atlas. At the time, the future Farnan Private Hosptial was owned by F. Clark.

Meanwhile, Billerica’s fire department answered the alarm, from the Billerica Central and North Billerica stations.  Chief Bartlett arrived to find flames shooting from the hospital’s eaves.  He immediately sought help from Lowell, which sent five more engines to the two-alarm fire.  Hose lines were laid from every hydrant.  Ladders were raised to every section of the roof.  For a while, the fire threatened to engulf the entire building.

Hundreds watched the firemen’s progress from Mt. Pleasant Street.  Inside the Damon home, Louise Saber, the nurse-in-charge, directed the care of the patients, and ensured that the beds and cots were set up.  First aid was administered.  Quickly, the nurses  determined that the patients had suffered no serious injuries.

The "Red Gables", as it appears today.  (Image Credit:  Google Maps - May 2009)

The “Red Gables”, as it appears today. (Image Credit: Google Maps – May 2009)

In the end, the firemen extinguished the flames, and Merle Farnan promised to quickly rebuild her hospital.  Even in 1938, North Billerica valued the historic building, which had been built as the Red Gables estate of Frederic Clark, a Talbot Mills treasurer, superintendent, and president.  Investigators later traced the cause of the fire to the open flame of a first-floor fireplace, which had shot up the partitions, and burst into the second-floor bedroom entered by the W.P.A. men.  At the time of the fire, the fireplaces were being used for heat because the building’s electrical service was out due to the recent hurricane.

Merle Farnan did rebuild her hospital.  During the rebuilding, North Billerica showed its generosity and hospitality when the Damon family and other neighbors took in the hospital’s patients.    The following Independence Day, in 1939, Farnan treated hospital patients, and their gracious neighbors, to an elaborate display of fireworks.  The building still stands today on Mt. Pleasant Street and is an apartment house.


Worries of the Past: Smallpox and Boston’s Epidemic of 1872

A smallpox inoculation sign from 1801, via Wikipedia Commons

First, flu-like symptoms emerge -fever, aches, pains, nausea.  Exhaustion soon follows.  It’s not until a few days later when the telltale, flat, red spots appear about the face, hands, and arms.  The spots evolve into pus-filled blisters that scab first and then fall off, to reveal deep, pitted scars.  Smallpox was one of history’s most dreaded diseases, not only for its tendency to produce significant and deep scarring to victims’ faces, but also for its ability to cause blindness, or even worse, death.

Smallpox deaths in Boston, 1811-1873

Fear of smallpox never lurked far from the worries of 19th-century Bostonians.  Older folks still spoke of an epidemic that had struck Boston during 1721 and 1722 and killed 844, which was then more than 7% of the population.  The chart at right, from a February 1881 edition of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal shows the level of smallpox contagion in Boston during most of the 19th century.  During the century’s first decades, after the first smallpox vaccinations were introduced in 1800, smallpox all but disappeared from Boston.  From 1839 forward, the presence of smallpox remained more or less constant in the city.  The epidemic that everyone talked about, though, dwarfed all the others and even rivaled the earlier outbreak of 1721.  The smallpox epidemic of 1872 claimed over 1,000 lives before it finally abated in the first weeks of 1874.

During the 1872 epidemic, smallpox victims, or even those suspected of having smallpox, were brought, sometimes against their will, to Gallop’s Island in Boston Harbor.  During the epidemic, those who could not get to the island or afford care there, were re-directed to the city’s smallpox hospital on Albany Street.  The hospital, overwhelmed by the sudden onslaught of smallpox infections, quickly found its 30-patient capacity stretched to 48.  Charges soon emerged that those admitted to the Boston Smallpox Hospital on Albany Street did not receive proper care or food and that they were forced to endure substandard conditions.  The testimony provided by patients and medical staff has been preserved and provides some interesting insights into the experiences of 19th-century hospital patients.

The main complaint emerging from the hearings seems to have been the casualness around the enforcement of the smallpox quarantine.  Several hospital patients claimed seeing the hospital’s gates open at different times of the day.  Others reported seeing smallpox patients come in very close contact with women who came into the hospital yard to collect rags or boys who had come to collect nails.  Several saw sailors near the hospital’s gates.  Nearly all could not recall ever seeing the red flag (indicating smallpox contagion) hung at the gates to warn passersby and visitors of the smallpox infection inside.

Late 19th century sanitary water closet

Another complaint involved the hospital’s water closet, or bathroom/restroom as we call it today.  Nearly all patients complained that the water closets were filthy and that most did not work.  Administrators did acknowledge that toilets did not always work and explained the difficulty in finding plumbers who were willing to enter the hospital, make the repairs, and risk infection.  Nevertheless, the stench from some water closets was so oppressive that several patients took it upon themselves to clean the water closets.

Lastly, many patients complained of the food, claiming that there wasn’t enough, or that it was of poor quality.  Several claimed that eggs or meat that had been served them had gone bad, and in the case of meat, contained maggots.

In the end, the Smallpox Hospital was closed in September 1872, and patients were once again cared for either in the facilities on Gallop’s Island or in their own homes.  Claims charging inadequate food or insufficient care were never substantiated.  However, the claims that the hospital was overcrowded and lacked enough help were found to be true.  The committee investigating the claims did decide that more nurses were needed, but also considered that patients, when sufficiently healthy, were expected to patch in too.  Regarding the broken toilets, the committee did find that it was indeed broken, but sympathized with the hospital, which claimed, probably quite truthfully, that no one would enter the hospital to fix them because they were afraid of being infected with smallpox themselves.

No effective treatment was ever discovered for smallpox, a disease that killed up to 30% of those who were infected, and pockmarked up to 80% of its survivors – most often on the face.  In 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a successful global eradication program, which led to the world’s last case of naturally-occurring smallpox, in 1977.