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New children’s hospital traces roots to eight-room cottage in 1882

The Children's Memorial Hospital-Chicago ward 1933. From archives The Children's Memorial Hospital Thursday June 7 2012. | John H. White~Sun-Times

The Children's Memorial Hospital-Chicago, a ward in 1933. From the archives of The Children's Memorial Hospital, Thursday, June 7, 2012. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 11, 2012 10:21AM

For more than half of Julia Foster Porter’s life, the reclusive woman wore black — somber clothes that spoke of a crushing grief.

Shortly after losing her father, husband and a son all in the span of six years, she gave the city its first children’s hospital in 1882.

Porter is worth remembering as celebrations continue this weekend during the opening of the glittering, $855 million Ann & Robert Lurie Children’s Hospital in Streeterville.

“She would be astounded and extremely proud of her legacy,” said Dr. Stanford T. Shulman, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s and a history buff. “In a sense, her hospital is closing [Saturday], because the new hospital — the successor — has a different name. But we all know, it’s the successor to her hospital, which probably would not have been possible without the legacy she provides.”

As scary as a trip to the doctor can be for a child today, it was infinitely more so toward the end of the 19th Century. Children under five accounted for half of all deaths in Chicago in the 1880s. Home remedies — gin for scarlet fever, “goose grease” for whooping cough — were more common than a trip to see a doctor, according to author Clare McCausland, who wrote “An Element of Love,” a 1981 history of Children’s Memorial Hospital. In the early 1880s, there was no hospital devoted solely to the treatment of children.

Porter, a wealthy Lincoln Park widow who lost her 13-year-old son to “acute rheumatism” in 1881, decided to do something about that. So in 1882, Porter opened a hospital in an eight-room cottage at the corner of Belden and Halsted. Care, such as it was, came free with “no restrictions of race, creed or residence.”

An 1886 pamphlet describes the hospital — which had since moved into slightly larger digs in the same neighborhood — as having “every modern improvement conducive to the welfare and comfort of the inmates,” according to McCausland’s book.

Even so, medicine was “extremely crude, extremely primitive,” Shulman said.

The X-ray machine didn’t arrive until the early 20th Century.

“Prior to that, all you could do was feel with your hands and try to see if a bone was broken … or if there was a tumor in the bone,” Shulman said.

Rubber gloves were rarely worn during operations and so the risk of infection was great, Shulman said. Gaslight illuminated hospital rooms in the early days. An early photograph shows patients kneeling for bedtime prayers.

Doctors did what they could, Shulman said, emphasizing good nutrition — fresh fruits and vegetables and a safe milk supply, at a time before the advent of pasteurization.

In 1905, Children’s moved to the parcel of land where it stood until Saturday’s move.

Porter’s own fortune funded the hospital year after year, but she also encouraged philanthropic support.

“She galvanized the wealthy people she knew socially,” Shulman said. “One of the clever things she did was to encourage people she knew to endow a bed at the hospital — somewhere between $350 — 500.”

Porter died in 1937 at age 90.

In 1948, the hospital hired its first black doctor, at a time when racial tensions in the city were beginning to rise, McCausland wrote in her book about Children’s. Black nurses followed two years later.

“There is such a crying need in the community now for well-prepared people to care for members of their own race that I cannot see how we can disregard our community responsibility as a teaching hospital,” Mabel Binner, the hospital’s superintendent, said at the time.

Through the years, Children’s has provided countless stories that inspire and astonish, including what happened to 4-year-old Jimmy Tontlewicz in January 1984. The little boy, nicknamed “Jimmy T.,” was sledding with his dad on a frozen Lake Michigan near Wilson Avenue. Jimmy plunged through the ice and spent 20 minutes under water. He had no vital signs when divers found him. Technically, he was dead. But with the help of rescue crews and Children’s doctors, he survived.

From time to time, there was talk of moving the hospital downtown. Instead, new buildings rose within the cramped triangle of Orchard Street and Lincoln and Fullerton avenues, often angering area residents who said the campus was killing the area’s neighborhood feel.

But in 2006, Children’s announced plans to leave Lincoln Park for Streeterville — a move that got a big boost with a $100-million donation from Chicago philanthropist Ann Lurie.

With its gleaming glass facade, life-size whale sculptures in the lobby and a staff that includes 1,100 pediatric specialists, the new facility bears little resemblance to the gas-lighted cottage where Porter’s hopes for the city’s children began. But Porter isn’t forgotten. An oil portrait of the woman hangs from a wall in the executive offices; she gets a mention on the 12th floor “History Wall; and every year, 10 employees receive the Julia Foster Porter award for outstanding service.

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