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Before Backus Hospital:

Medicine in Norwich in the Late 19th Century


Jan J. Akus, MD

INTRODUCTION: Meeting minutes from the mid 19th centur re ect a


A History within a History dedication to advancing medicine and to serving the
When I was asked to write a short history of the regional community, even before the association found
William W. Backus hospital, I found myself fortunate a permanent home when the hospital was dedicated
to have been entrusted with custody of an old volume in 1893. Article XI of the Association regulations
chronicling the meeting minutes of the Norwich mandated that every physician who became a member
Medical Association dating back to 1850, forty years signed the following statement:
before the hospital was built. The book was given to We the undersigned desirous of the advancement of Medical
me by my father-in-law, the late Dr. Albert Gosselin, Science, and of the improvement of the Medical Profession
a prominent general practitioner who served the approve of the regulations of the Norwich Medical Association,
Hospital from 1956 until 1994, presiding four terms as and pledge ourselves to sustain its meetings and to do all in our
resi ent spital ta an as spital ist rian power to promote its interests.

Between the pages of the book, he left a letter from


the politically outspoken urologist, Dr. William F.
McKeon dated January 25, 1980, asking Dr. Gosselin
to “please keep this volume, ‘found’ in a back room
near the old surgery.” McKeon was apparently leaving
the hospital, and felt a responsibility to leave the
historical record with someone he trusted to preserve it
for posterity. The letter brims with warmth and esteem
between the two colleagues; McKeon addresses Dr.
Gosselin as “…my mentor, father confessor, colleague Statement under Article XI of the regulations of
rien is a ecti n it t e est al t e the Norwich Medical Association
volume suggests a shared appreciation for the historical
legacy of the hospital and the Norwich medical Other articles from the Association rule book paint
community, and a shared belief in the importance of a picture of a formally structured, democratic
its continuity. As custodian of these historical records, organization. In 1858, meetings were held on the
I now have the privilege of insight into life in the 19th second Thursday of each month at noon at the home
century medical community, some interesting details of of one of the members “in alphabetical order of their
which are shared in this article. names.” A two thirds majority vote was required to
alter any of the articles of association, and only after a
Picture of the Medical Profession in Norwich proposal for such change was presented at the previous
in the Mid 19th Century meeting. Attendance was mandatory and an excuse
Long before the hospital was established there was a was expected if not present at the meeting.
Norwich Medical Association composed of private
practitioners who provided healthcare for the community.
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The meetings themselves typically included active As the town grew with industrialization toward the turn
clinical and pathological discussions of interesting of the century, limited resources for healthcare were
cases, many of which illuminate public health issues at odds with the level of need, while at the same time
and topics of clinical research of the time. Around this booming industry brought great wealth and economic
time, t e first use t er as anest esia in a sur ical growth. This combination of factors ultimately led to
operation had just been recorded by Crawford Long the donations of capital needed to build and establish
in 1842; Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch did not a hospital to serve residents of Norwich and the
establish their Germ Theory of Disease until 1870. Cases surrounding area.
of diphtheria were a common topic of discussion
at Association meetings. Other discussions included Industrialization and Norwich at the
the use of whiskey to treat a case of pneumonia, Turn of the Century
examination of the atrial and aortic valves of a heart By the time construction began on W.W. Backus
r m a patient su ere su en eat , an t e Hospital in 1891, Norwich was a thriving and successful
novel use of a fern to remove a 32-foot tape worm. Victorian city. In the 1890s, the town’s population had
swelled to twenty three thousand. Norwich was ideal
for the development of the textile industry because
of its many rivers, which served as access points for
shipping and receiving and also allowed businesses to
capitalize on the innovation of water-powered mills.

By the 1890s there were twelve active textile mills


and many shipping businesses. Electric trolleys were
intr uce in , an an in u immi rants r m
the American South following the Civil War, as well as
Minutes discussing the use of a fern to remove from Canada, Europe and other areas, brought skills
a 32-foot tape worm and labor that supported the city’s businesses as well as
a diverse cultural life. The city had eight banks, twenty-
The association also deliberated and reached decisions one schools, churches and cultural organizations. It
on civil and economic matters. They contracted was recorded that there were thirty-three physicians
with the town of Norwich to provide medical and and twenty-nine nurses, but no hospital.
surgical care for the alms house. In 1836, it was agreed
between the town and the Association to appoint four The establishment of hospitals in major American
physicians to attend to residents of the alms house for cities during the 19th Century grew in parallel with
three months at a time for a fee of $350. A schedule the increasing industrialization and technology of the
of standard fees for medical care issued in the 1890s United States. It was a place where the practice of
specifies t at a use call urin t e a c st a sanitation could be implemented. The discoveries of
house call at night was $3.00. The delivery of a child linking disease with bacteria revolutionized medicine.
was $10.00 during the day and $13.00 at night. Before Patients would be treated with nutritious foods and
Backus Hospital was built, the town had no hospital, clean environments. Hospitals would serve as a place
and healthcare was provided in patients’ homes. where surgical skills and anesthesia advanced.
Tonsillectomies and other minor procedures were
performed on ironing boards and kitchen tables. Cases The Hospital’s Founding Fathers, Slater
requiring more complex surgeries were transported to and Backus
Hartford, Providence or Boston, and many patients fi ures s u t t impr ve me ical care in t e
died on the long trip. That was before cars so the trips community. William Walcott Backus and William
were by carriage or “chaise”. The conditions of the Albert Slater were the spark that initiated the process
roads varied by season, meandering around streams, to establish a hospital in Norwich. Mr. Backus donated
boulders, and rough terrain. A broken wheel on a $185,000 (about $4M today) to fund the hospital’s
carriage was not an unusual occurrence. construction, and Slater donated the eighteen acres of
land that would become the Hospital campus.
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John Fox Slater donated generously to philanthropy
and civic causes in Norwich. He founded the Slater
Memorial Museum at Norwich Free Academy in 1886
in memory of his father, William A. Slater, and loaned
the museum many works from his art collection. Among
t er eneficiaries is nati ns ere r ic ree
Academy, United Family Community Services, and
Otis Library. He sponsored the city’s YMCA and funded
the construction of the Norwich Broadway Theater as
well as some of the performances produced there. His
land donation for the hospital campus remains as part
of his legacy of support for the town.
W.W. Backus Hospital, 1893
William Walcott Backus
r n later as t e t er fi ure t at pla e
was a cattle farmer,
a major role in the Backus Hospital development. He
self-taught lawyer and
was the great nephew of Samuel Slater, a prodigious
successful businessman.
industrialist who Andrew Jackson once labeled the
He was the sixth child
“father of the American industrial revolution”.
of a family of eight,
Samuel Slater had come to America from England as
and was born in 1803 in
a young boy, and revolutionized the textile industry
Woodstock, Connecticut.
by introducing machine technologies that had been
His father died when
patented in England, using water power from rivers
he was thirteen years
and streams to spin and weave cloth. These innovations William Walcott Backus
old, and his mother was
turned the Northeast into the “Silicon Valley” of
the daughter of Charles
textiles in the late 19th century. His descendants
Church Chandler, a well-known Windham lawyer. He
included his great nephew John Fox Slater and his son
traveled to Marietta, Ohio where he was employed by
William Albert Slater. Both of these men worked in
the Mercantile establishment of Dudley Woodbridge,
the family business which owned the Slaterville mills in
but illness required him to return home. He took up
the Brownstone River Valey, the Jewett City Mills, and
residence in his ancestral home, becoming the seventh
Ponemah Mills in Taftville.
generation in the Backus family to live there.
Their success in the textile
In time his health recovered, and the family farm
business led the Slater
began to prosper with harvests of corn and potatoes, as
family into great wealth.
well as a large heard of cattle. William worked the farm
William Albert maintained
by day, while reading and studying by lamp light at
an ce in B st n an
night. He was often seen driving his carriage with his
lived a lifestyle in keeping
, B s n, a r n rin le illiam s financial success
with the fashion of the
enabled him to make generous contributions to private
Brahmins. He belonged
and public charities later in life. His gift of $175,000
to the Tavern Club and
to the founding of the hospital is one example of his
the Sommerset Club, and
sensitivity toward the unfortunate and distressed in
owned a two hundred
our society.
thirty-two foot yacht
named “Eleanor” after his daughter, and sailed
Construction on the hospital began in 1891, and the
around the world with his family. He was a graduate
hospital was dedicated on October 4th of 1893, just
of Harvard where he studied art history, and he
three months after William Backus died at the age of
eventually acquired a valuable and noteworthy
eighty-eight. Mr. Slater would serve as the Hospital’s
art collection.
first presi ent
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e spital pene it si t t ree e s, a sta si teen, an peratin r m an a nurses trainin me e
W.W. Backus Hospital became a vital resource for healthcare to the residents of Norwich and eastern Connecticut.
The Norwich Medical Association continued to meet regularly, moving eventually from its members’ homes to
Norwich town hall where they provided healthcare in an outpatient setting. With the establishment of a local hospital
patients requiring more complex procedures could be treated as inpatients.

The history of the hospital was tied to the town’s development as a hub of industry and prosperity at the turn of
the century. The Medical Association reveals a close knit, well organized professional community deeply committed
to serving Norwich and the surrounding area – a tradition that is carried on by several generations of Norwich
Physicians to the present.

We are fortunate to have well-preserved records to give us a detailed glimpse into medical practice of another time,
and future historians may someday look upon records like this newsletter with similar interest.

While the hospital campus remains as a preserved part of medicine from another time, many aspects of practice
are ver i erent e last meetin s t e r ic e ical Ass ciati n as in t e earl t entiet centur
Currently the medical community has no similar organized body in which to share insights, and discuss issues for
the advancement of medical science and the medical profession. Why don’t we? Is this something we can learn from
history and revive? g

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