The early 20th century brought major sanitary and scientific changes to medical practices. With these changes came a need for hospitals that could offer specialized care for people who needed surgery or were recovering from serious illnesses. In Wisconsin, most communities of several thousand people, like Whitewater, developed hospitals, usually in large houses and usually by physicians. In Whitewater, the story was a bit different.
Early in the 20th century, physicians in Whitewater made known their desire for a hospital in which they could have sterile conditions and specialized equipment not available in patient’s houses or their offices. Meeting that need was businessman Charles Martin and his wife, who offered to enlarge and remodel their private residence into a hospital. Their house, on the far northeast side of Whitewater (near where today’s modern water tower is located) also met the criteria of being on the “edge” of the community, rather than in the middle of it, a factor that would relieve residents’ concerns about disease being spread in the city.
The expanded Martin house was typical of small-town hospitals from that era. The Martins operated the hospital with a trained head nurse from February of 1909 to September of 1915. Florence Wheeler, also a trained nurse, acquired the hospital in 1915 and operated it until 1923. It was then acquired by Mr. & Mrs. Carroll Marshall. Newspaper notices from 1908-1923 indicate that the hospital had a steady stream of patients who were ill, or who needed operations, or wanted a hospital delivery for their babies.
In January of 1920, Normal School student Lillian Kenney wrote to the Whitewater Register of her brief stay at the hospital. She stated that she found the hospital “in appearance like a very pleasant home” where “many, not only minor, but also major operations were being very successfully performed.” She also noted that a number of babies were born during her stay. Unfortunately, in January of 1925, the hospital burned, and although the hospital had $12,000 in insurance, a newly equipped building would have cost at least $20,000 and so the building was never rebuilt.
But the need for a hospital was still there and about six months later, Mrs. Mary Sweet opened a hospital in a large house at Main and Whiton Streets and this facility was open well into the
1930s. By the 1940s, small-town hospitals in old houses could not offer the more sophisticated treatment doctors were able to provide their patients and most communities discussed building new hospitals or attracting a group, often Catholic nuns, to build one.
In 1942, the Whitewater City Council discussed plans for either a new hospital building or remodeling the old Morris Pratt Institute into a hospital building, but nothing came of the discussion because modern hospitals were expensive and needed much fund-raising. This was unsuccessful in Whitewater, but citizens of Fort Atkinson were fund-raising throughout the war years for a community hospital and raised $255,000 by the end of the war. Experts also suggested that building a larger hospital in Fort Atkinson that would serve a regional area, including the City of Whitewater, made more sense than building small hospitals.
So, with an additional $80,000 from fund-raising, a $200,000 mortgage, and a federal grant, the 62-bed Fort Atkinson Memorial Hospital was opened in 1950. Just as had been suggested, the Fort Atkinson Hospital did become a regional hospital and there were no other attempts at hospital-building in Whitewater after that time.
*If using this article, please cite, Carol Lohry Cartwright, “When Whitewater Had a Hospital,” 2020, Whitewater Historical Society website, Whitewater, WI.