This morning I was filling out an Obstetrical Pre-Admission Form, in case I decide or need to go to the hospital for the upcoming birth of our fifth child. It contained all the usual questions: next of kin, family doctor, referring midwife, etc. The one that gave me pause was, “Do you wish your religion listed on your chart?” I have only been a patient in the hospital twice before, and traditionally my response has been, “No, this is none of your business!”
However, this time I responded, “Yes” and then listed my denomination. I think that I can attribute the shift to a couple of things, but see it springing primarily from a deeper appreciation and desire for the healing ordinances and power available to Latter-day Saints. It is quite likely, that if I end up in the hospital, I could be the only Mormon there at the time. Those who work in hospitals are no strangers to spiritual ministrations to the sick; in fact, various studies have shown that emotional and religious care is equally important in the healing process of patients. Harvard cardiologist, Herbert Benson wrote, “I am astonished that my scientific studies have so conclusively shown that our bodies are wired to be nourished and healed by prayer and other exercises of belief”. As I finished up my form, I wondered how familiar those in the Family Birthing Unit of my hospital would be with the gift of laying on of hands to heal the sick. At one point, I might have felt embarrassed or awkward about the possibility of nurses or doctors seeing such a thing.
Such feelings are not unique to me and led to the founding of the Deseret Hospital. Concerned Mormon women advocated for the establishment of a public hospital that would meet the special needs of LDS patients. Although, St. Mark’s (Episcopalian) Hospital was established early in 1872 and Holy Cross (Catholic) Hospital was operating by 1875, Relief Society sisters felt uncomfortable around non-Mormon doctors and staff members who discouraged the Mormon practice of anointing the sick within their hospitals. Eliza R. Snow, spoke out. She said that a hospital was needed and that “there were women in the stakes of Zion whose lives were being sacrificed to this need.” Another woman remarked that, “We realize that the other hospitals are excellent institutions, but we want one where our own Elders can walk freely in and perform the ceremonies of the Church without having the eyes of the curious upon them.”
The Deseret Hospital opened on July 17, 1882 with the dual purpose of caring for the sick and maimed as well as educating midwives and training nurses. Two male physicians were on staff but it was dominated primarily by female doctors, including Ellen B. Ferguson, Ellis R. Shipp, Romania B. Pratt and Martha Hughes Cannon. It functioned under the direction of the Relief Society, with the support of the First Presidency. Eliza R. Snow served as the president of the all female board.*
Greatly satisfied with the establishment of the hospital, Snow remarked in her diary, how nice it was that the ladies had their own hospital for caring for those who, “when desired, could have the sacred ordinances of anointing with oil and laying on of hands administered without being exposed to the contempt and ridicule of those who ignore them.” Eventually, there would be 30-40 beds, though there were seldom more than sixteen patients at a time. After the birth of her second child there, Hannah Adeline Hatch Savage described the facility as “a poor excuse for a hospital” but testified to the healing that followed her blessing at the hands of Lucy Bigelow Young.
The Deseret Hospital didn’t last long. Financial support was never adequate to pay for the treatment of the many “free” patients who sought care there, and the hospital was forced to close in 1894. There were some acrimonious internal divisions between the doctors and board. Eventually, it was replaced by LDS Hospital in 1905. Sadly, Relief Society sisters were asked to provide its linens, but were offered no role in its management.
Looking at the early records of Mormon hospitals is fascinating. Large containers of consecrated oil were ordered to have on hand. Some received special callings to administer to the sick at hospitals. Hospital protocols had to be established for those who served in such callings. Healing the sick by faith and treating disease through allopathic methods merged in an unique manner. In thinking about the intersection of spirituality and medicine as it applies in my own life, I like to remember these pioneer women and their hospital. It seems they fevently believed that the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise her up.
* Picture: Deseret Hospital Board of Directors. Top row: Ellis Shipp, MD; Bathsheba Smith; Elizabeth Howard; Romania B. Pratt Penrose, MD. Second row: Phebe Woodruff; Mary Isabella Horne; Eliza R. Snow; Zina D. H. Young; Marinda N. Hyde. Bottom row: Jane S. Richards; Emmeline B. Wells. Courtesy the Utah State Historical Society.