El Paso in the 1900s
In 1900, the City of El Paso had just 15,906 residents. In the 1890s and early 1900s, the employed and those who were able to pay found treatment in hospitals and sanatoriums. The poor lived in tent cities with little more than "folk cures" to rely on when someone was sick. Infectious patients were sent to a "pest house," where they usually died. In 1902, a two-story county hospital serving the poor was built near Old Fort Bliss on Smelter Road. Leon Metz wrote in El Paso Chronicles that people who died upstairs were "lowered by rope from a window."
Today's public health services began in the mid-nineteenth century in response to the squalid conditions that existed in rapidly growing cities and towns during the industrial revolution and out of concern for protection against infectious diseases. El Paso was no different. In 1907, Dr. Hugh White led a group of El Paso physicians in the planning for a new county hospital. A 100-bed facility costing $40,000 opened east of Washington Park in 1915. This was the beginning of Thomason Hospital. Named El Paso County General Hospital, this three-story facility employed a resident doctor and nurse, but it still left much to be desired, with little in the way of equipment and supplies and untrained volunteers as staff.
In the next 15 years, El Paso experienced the 1918 flu epidemic, and El Paso's warm dry climate attracted increasing numbers of tuberculosis patients from all over the country.
In 1932, the facility expanded again to offer 23 new beds and received a new name: El Paso City-County Hospital. The hospital was remodeled in 1935 and expanded to 204 beds, including an operating room and sterilization of equipment. With the Depression and World War II, however, the still largely charity hospital continued to have financial problems.
Dr. Russell Deter volunteered his skills during that period as chief of surgery at the hospital. Deter said he had to "scrounge around town" for surgical instruments. As bad as these conditions were, they were similar to most city-county hospitals around the country in the 1940s and 1950s.
It's easy to forget how far public health has come in the last century. In the early nineteenth century, a newborn had about one chance in four or five of dying before his or her first birthday, and only about half of them survived long enough to grow up and have children of their own. They died of diarrheal diseases, including cholera, or of respiratory infections, such as bronchitis, measles, croup, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. Life expectancy in the new industrial towns was only about 35 years. In the early 1900s in the United States, major health threats were infectious diseases associated with poor hygiene and poor sanitation (typhoid), diseases associated with poor nutrition, poor maternal and infant health. In the last half of the century, public health identified the risk factors for many chronic diseases and intervened to reduce mortality. The success of the early public health system to incorporate biomedical advances (epidemiology, vaccinations and antibiotics) and to develop interventions such as health education programs has resulted in decreases in the impact of these diseases. Unfortunately, as the incidence of these diseases decreased, chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and cancer increased. Public efforts also led to reduced deaths attributed to diseases or injuries associated with unsafe workplaces or hazardous occupations and a new technology, the automobile.
In 1953, the Texas legislature passed a bill that allowed the creation of hospital districts across the state, whereby a percentage of property taxes would be earmarked for county hospitals. El Paso voters approved such a district in 1958. Flyers supporting the measure included pictures of the dilapidated facility along with a question asking residents if they would like to be taken there in case of an accident. In 1959, El Pasoans approved a $3.7 million bond issue to build a 335- bed hospital. A state grant added $2.5 million to the project. The new hospital was named for R.E. Thomason, a former El Paso mayor, congressman and federal judge, well known for his dedicated public service.
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