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The history of Skiff (Part I)

Published: Monday, Sept. 16, 2013 11:00 a.m. CST • Updated: Monday, Sept. 16, 2013 11:35 a.m. CST

(Continued from Page 1)

The history of medical care in the Newton area begins long before that of our hospital.  The first medical practice in Jasper County was established in 1847 when Dr. Henry Rodgers relocated to our city from his home in Pendleton, Ind.  Additional physicians came to the Jasper County area during the ensuing decade and the first county medical society was formed in 1858, with five founding members.  These early physicians were truly extraordinary, practicing much of the time as “saddle-bag” doctors, braving the elements to reach the home of the sick and injured.  Though medicine in those days was much more art than science, they carried out with their best efforts what they believed to be best for their patients. 

The late 1800s saw the institution of laws in the state of Iowa regarding the practice of medicine, an area in which Iowa was a national leader.  The cause of improving medical practice was enhanced in the early 1900s when the American Medical Association created their Council on Medical Education and commissioned the Flexner Report, a study of American medical colleges.  In 1910, this study was published and led to extensive changes in medical college admission standards and the implementation of science-based curriculum focused on physiology and biochemistry.  It also led to the institution of hospital-based training for physicians and the strengthening of medical licensure standards across the states.   These changes resulted in significant improvements in the quality of those practicing medicine, as well as advancements in the outcomes experienced by their patients.

During this period of intense change in the medical profession nationally, the profession in Jasper County was changing as well.  Between 1850 and 1910, the population of the county increased from less than 1,500 to more than 27,000.  As the county grew, so did the number of physicians, with 25 practicing here by 1912.  The growth of the county, the number of physicians and the increasing use of hospitals by physicians to treat the sick led to a desperate need in the Jasper County area for a modern hospital.

To address this need, the Newton Commercial Association created a hospital committee in March 1917.  This committee was chaired by F.L. Maytag (the founder of the Maytag Corporation) and included several local businessmen, as well as several physicians.  The first order of business for the committee was the creation of the Newton Hospital Association, the rental of a house (the Caleb Lamb home), and the establishment of a fund to support the expenses of running this first hospital.  The budget in 1917 was $350 per month – quite a bit less than the current budget of $100,000 per day!

The second order of business was to design and build a state-of-the-art hospital in Newton to replace the temporary and tiny nine-bed hospital.  The need for a larger hospital was heightened when the state of Iowa was plunged into an outbreak of the Spanish Flu in 1918 and early 1919.  Things were so bad during this time that “loafing and congregating” were forbidden.  Picture shows, auctions and even church services were suspended.  The homes of those who contracted the flu were quarantined by order of the mayor and the quarantine of your house was lifted only by the recovery or death of the afflicted person!  The epidemic became so bad that a local hotel was converted into a temporary hospital for the sick.

In 1919, the Newton Hospital Association asked the city for permission to build a new hospital, and voters quickly approved the measure.  All that was needed now was funding.  The group knew exactly where to seek this financial support and approached Vernon Skiff, a resident of Chicago at the time, but originally from Newton.  Vernon Skiff had amassed great wealth through his Jewel Tea Company (known today as the Jewel Food Store / Osco Drug Company).  His wife, Mary Frances, had passed away in December 1918 and been laid to rest in her hometown of Newton. 

Vernon was keen to assist in providing Newton a modern hospital and pledged $50,000 in support of construction costs.  In addition to Skiff’s generous support, the city provided land to the Newton Hospital Association as a building site and pledged to pay all equipment costs and ongoing maintenance of the building via a tax levy.  This required the formation of a municipal hospital board of trustees.  Following an election, the board of trustees was established in April 1919.  With financial support, a building site and a city commitment in place, an architect was immediately commissioned and plans were drawn up. 

By the time the plans were complete in late 1919, the estimated cost of the hospital had risen to $100,000, but Skiff remained supportive of the cause and pledged to support this entire amount.  Due to his generosity, the hospital would be known as Mary Frances Skiff Memorial Hospital, remaining under that name until 1984.

In 1920, construction of the new hospital began, but by October of that year it was clear that rising labor and material costs would increase the total amount needed to $170,000.  The additional amount was raised during the next year in the form of pledges and gifts.  Even during construction, the hospital building was becoming known regionally and nationally for its modern design. 

It was covered in an extensive article published in the September issue of Modern Hospital magazine, where it was described as “one of the finest and most modern hospitals in the country.”  During the open house following completion of the building, one Des Moines physician noted that it was “better equipped than any hospital in Des Moines.” 

With these accolades already in place, on Jan. 15, 1921, the hospital admitted its first patient, Mrs. Lavina Lint of Mingo.  Three days later, the first baby was born at the hospital, Max Dodge of Newton.  In May 1921, at the dedication ceremony, those who had made the hospital possible, along with a large crowd, listened as F.L. Maytag gave honors to Vernon Skiff for his support of the project:

“Without any possible personal gain or advantage to yourself, you have given liberally of your substance to found your wife this splendid hospital.  Your sacrifices … will ever honor the memory of her who has been dearest to you.”

All seemed well on that beautiful spring day in 1921, but a problem was brewing, one that could destroy everything.

Check back for the next installment in a few weeks.

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