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Borgess Hospital

Kalamazoo’s First Hospital

Borgess Hospital, first located in the James A. Walter house on Portage Road, opened in 1889. Kalamazoo Public Library Photograph P-313

At the end of the 19th century Kalamazoo was home to a number of doctors and even an Academy of Medicine, but the nearest hospital was miles from the city. Doctors were only able to make house calls and, as a result, operations took place in citizens’ homes. These home operations resulted in unsanitary and unsafe conditions. While the citizenry realized the need for a hospital, it would not be until a parish priest took charge of the campaign that the demand would be met.

Borgess Hospital was Kalamazoo’s first hospital. The inspiration for it came in the spring of 1888 when Reverend Frank O’Brien visited a dying man in the jail’s “hospital room” – the place where many people were taken when they were sick simply because they had no where else to go. Rev. O’Brien was appalled that people should have to die in a jail when they were not even criminals and called for the urgent need of a hospital in the city. Kalamazoo had attempted to create a hospital several times before, but the closest the city had gotten was in the winter of 1881-1882 when two tents were erected as a temporary hospital in the city to deal with fears of a potential smallpox outbreak. The disease did not reach epidemic proportions, and the tents were stored for other uses. Luckily Rev. O’Brien’s call in 1888 would prove more successful. On Christmas Day of that year Rev. O’Brien announced to his congregation at St. Augustine Church that Bishop Caspar Henry Borgess, the former Bishop of Detroit, had donated $5,000 to the church which would be put towards a new hospital for the city. Work on the new hospital began almost immediately. On 5 March 1889 the James A. Walter residence on Portage Street was purchased to be used as the new hospital building. In July of that year, the cornerstone of a new addition was laid.

Enthusiasm and Reluctance

The hospital was an expensive endeavor, and the cost of purchasing the building, the new addition, and other various improvements soon totaled $15,000. When it became clear to Rev. O’Brien that the project needed funding he went to the city of Kalamazoo to ask for help. Mayor James Osborn declined however, stating that “such enterprises were foreign to municipal affairs.” The hospital did receive a $5,500 donation from the Citizen’s Committee but the project was still in debt. The people of St. Augustine Church held a bazaar in the summer of 1889 as a way to raise money for the hospital. The bazaar was very successful and raised almost $3,000. During that summer eleven nuns from the Sisters of St. Joseph in Watertown, New York arrived to staff the hospital. Borgess Hospital, named for the generous bishop, officially opened to the public on 8 December 1889, although the first patient had actually been admitted in late November.

While the hospital was receiving some much needed support from the congregation of St. Augustine, the Kalamazoo community as a whole was not as welcoming to the new hospital. Though the city had wanted a hospital for several years, now that one existed the community was raising objections. Some did not like the Sisters of St. Joseph running it, others thought that the hospital would be a burden on the church and the city, and still others felt that they were being taxed too heavily as a result of the new hospital.

New Building New Location

Despite the objections progress continued, the money from the summer bazaar and other fundraising efforts went into building the new addition. In 1901, 80 beds were added to the facility to give the hospital a total of 100 beds. The hospital grew again in 1917 when a new 100 bed hospital building was built on the former Hazard Estate on Gull Road. The building opened later that year and worked in conjunction with the Portage Street hospital providing health services to Kalamazoo residents. The Gull Road building underwent a $1,000,000 renovation during the late 1920s, and in 1929 the Portage Street building was closed and later sold to the Upjohn Company.

The first hospital structure was completed on Gull Road in 1917. Kalamazoo Public Library Postcard Collection

Healthcare Advances and New Programs

Throughout the 1930s, with the country in the midst of the Great Depression, Borgess faced serious financial struggles. Nonetheless, Borgess saw many advances in healthcare during this time. These advances included Dr. Roscoe Hildreth’s radium and radon therapy and the many inventions of Dr. Homer Stryker, including his famous CircoLectric bed. Dr. Richard Upjohn Light also began the first out-state neurosurgical and neurological outpatient services at Borgess at this time.

Borgess continued to grow and expand, and in 1953 the Borgess Service League was created. The League’s main objective was to encourage young women to enter the nursing profession. They did this by encouraging girls to participate in the Candy Stripers program, where high school aged girls assisted nurses by organizing patient rooms and passing out food trays. The first intern and residency training program came to the hospital in 1954. The program was so popular that Borgess later built a dormitory on the hospital grounds to house the doctors that traveled to Kalamazoo to participate in the program.

Construction Projects Begin

The 1950s also saw the first major expansion for the hospital since the million dollar renovation that took place in the mid-1920s. In 1954 the hospital conducted a $1,500,000 fund drive for improvements to existing facilities and the construction of a new wing The new wing added a short-term psychiatric ward and new laboratory and pharmaceutical facilities. The addition also increased the number of hospital beds from 260 to 333, an increase that was much needed because the hospital had been operating at its maximum capacity for some time. The addition and renovation was completed and opened in 1957.

The 1954 addition began a long line of expansions and renovations for the hospital. In 1964 $4,000,000 had been raised through a joint hospital fund drive. The money was to be split evenly between Borgess and Kalamazoo’s other hospital, Bronson Methodist Hospital. With extra funding received from the federal government, in 1966 Borgess began making plans for an expansion. The new expansion planned to add 85 beds to the hospital bringing the total number up to 425 beds. The plans also included adding a new intensive care unit, remodeling the emergency ward and adding a new medical library, outpatient psychiatric therapy, occupational therapy, and laboratory space. Though the project was stalled briefly in 1968 when the State Fire Marshall did not approve the plan because the emergency exits were not adequately marked on the blueprints, building began on the project in 1969.

New Firsts for Kalamazoo

In July 1971 Borgess received an $180,000 grant from the Kalamazoo Foundation for the construction and equipping of an intensive care unit for cardiac surgery patients. The unit was part of a planned open heart surgery program and was completed in December 1971. The area’s first open heart surgery was performed at Borgess on 11 January 1972. Along with establishing an open heart surgery program, Borgess established a kidney transplant program in 1971. Their first kidney transplant was performed on 3 November 1971.

New Name, New Additions

Borgess Hospital became Borgess Medical Center in 1979 and in 1980 the hospital opened the Cardiac Rehabilitation Institute, which uses medically-monitored exercise programs to treat and prevent heart attacks. In 1986 Borgess launched a $43,000,000 construction/renovation project. This project renovated three major wings and demolished the East-North Wing that had been built in 1917. The project also added two floors to the North Tower, new critical care units, and expanded the surgery center. While construction continued on the renovation, a new building was being planned. In the summer of 1989 ground was broken on the Lawrence Educations Center, a building that houses a 400-seat auditorium, several classrooms, and a video studio. Along with multiple construction projects the 1980s saw several new programs surface at Borgess. The child car seat safety program, poison control, and the Borgess “Run for the Health of It” program were all added at this time. The hospital also assisted in developing the county’s first EMS system.

Borgess launched its most expensive construction/renovation project yet in 2001, it was the first major construction project since 1986. The plans called for a $77,000,000 three phase project which included tearing down the Stryker Building to make room for a new parking ramp. Other plans included creating a new entrance off the ramp, consolidating all outpatient and inpatient services into two specific areas, and building a new gift shop and pharmacy. Minor renovations were also done to the first floor of the North Tower.  The entire construction project was completed in the summer of 2006.

Continuing Commitment

Borgess’ commitment to becoming a better hospital for Kalamazoo is shown in its many construction projects over the years, and its character is shown in its dedication to providing the area with the best healthcare possible. From its Cardiac Center to the programs that it provides for community education, Borgess has provided Kalamazoo with top quality healthcare and education for more than one-hundred years.

Written by Cassandra Rollins, Kalamazoo Public Library Intern, June 2009. Last updated 16 June 2010.



The History of Borgess Hospital

Plantefaber, Rita
Papers from The History Seminar at Kalamazoo College, January 1949
H 362 P71


“A Hospital Starter”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 27 December 1888, page 5

“Borgess gets $180,000 for Heart Care Unit”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 15 July 1971, page B1

“It was transplant or death according to patient’s dad”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 5 November 1971, page B3

“Open Heart Surgery Performed”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 12 January 1972, page B1

“Work set to begin on Borgess Projects”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 26 August 2001, page A1

Local History Room Files

Subject File: Borgess Hospital

Subject File: Borgess Medical Center


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