St. John Medical Center

HISTORY OF ST JOHN MEDICAL CENTER-Contributed by Robert M. Shepard, M.D., May 7, 2002

A presentation made by Dr. Shepard, December 8, 1999

Last August St. John Medical center announced an 82.5 million-dollar expansion to accommodate the burgeoning needs of an expanding, successful institution. The project will be financed by a bond issue backed by a 300 million dollar yearly budget which has also paid off the 44 million-dollar bond issue which financed the construction of the north tower.

How did this behemoth come to this point, rising, as it did, from a small, struggling hospital, which came within a breath of expiring before it was born? How did it progress and thrive during the threequarters of a century of its existence, and who were the people that made it happen?

In 1914 Tulsa had a population of about 25,000, a few paved downtown streets, and fewer than 100 doctors. Dr. Fred Clinton, C.C.Reeder and C.Z. Wiley had opened the 40 bed Tulsa Hospital at 5th and Lawton in 1907, and the Physicians and Surgeons hospital at 13th and Carson with 30 beds opened in 1910 under the auspices of Drs G.H. Butler, S.D. Hawley, W.0. Conway, and R.S. Wagner. The city was rapidly outgrowing these medical facilities and the need for a hospital prompted doctors from the Tulsa County Medical Society and Monsignor Heiring of the Catholic diocese to approach the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother, who operated St. Frances Hospital in Wichita, Ks, with an invitation to build a hospital here. After several visits the sisters requested the bishop of Oklahoma City and the mother superior of their congregation for permission to build. This was granted in 1916. The TCMS endorsed this decision by formal resolution.

And who were the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother? Amalia Streitel was born in Bavaria and came to Rome February 16, 1883 to start a new order of nuns. On September 17, 1885 Pope Leo XIII gave the community the title of “Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother. In 1887 Amalia Streitel, now Mother Mary Frances, sent two sisters to America to collect alms for the poor and find a possible field of labor. In November 1889 they formed the community’s first mission, St. Francis Hospital, in Wichita, Kansas. The order later opened hospitals in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and New Mexico, schools in Kansas, and a health resort in Danville, New Jersey.

After receiving permission to build, the Superior General of the order, Mother Johanna, sent Sister Mary Cornelia and Miss Kate Melvin to explore the area.

They found an eight and three quarter acre truck farm for sale by Mr. Martin Schulter out in the country at 21st. and Utica. It was purchased August 29, 1916 for $16,000.

A drive in 1917 raised $250,000, less several thousand dollars mulcted by an unscrupulous professional fundraiser who had conned the community and sisters with an unfair contract. He had worded the contract to state his fee would be based on the amount pledged rather than the amount collected, and he inflated the pledges. It was necessary to spend much of the money on paving Utica, building a road on the north side of the property, and laying connecting pipes to the city water and sewer lines.

Ground was broken Wednesday, February 11, 1920 by General John J. (Black Jack) Pershing, war hero who had run Pancho Villa back to Mexico and was commander of the American Expeditionary forces in World War One. Pershing’s friend, Mr. C.A Ray of Muskogee, had his wallet lifted by a pickpocket while he was shaking hands with the General. It was a $50 handshake.

A fund drive in 1920 had raised a substantial amount of money when it came to the attention of the fund-raising committee that the paid firm in charge had led the people to believe that if they raised half of the money, the sisters would contribute the other half. This was untrue. The sisters had made no such commitment and had no funds to contribute if it had been true. The committee immediately wrote to all the contributors, setting out the facts and returning all the money raised and canceled all pledges. This caused misunderstandings and ill feelings, which lasted for years. Money ran out in 1922 and construction stopped March 2. Attempts to collect more money were futile and the skeleton of the building was left standing for three years. During this time the watchman on the site was murdered by 3 teenagers, who were caught and sent to prison. The skeleton and concrete pillars of the hospital were referred to as “Monuments to bigotry”, because at that time Tulsa, and Oklahoma, were passing through the Ku Klux Klan period-the greatest period of religious and racial intolerance in Oklahoma history. It was at this time, 1921, that the Tulsa race riot occurred. This paralyzed any attempts to finish the hospital.

In 1924 the sisters abandoned hope and prepared to sell the property. Monsignor John Heiring, pastor of the Holy Family Church, pressed them to continue and Mother Superior Johanna responded by causing some valuable property owned by the Sisters at Denville, N. J. to be sold and the proceeds sent to Tulsa.

Work resumed Jan 2, 1925, to finish and open two floors with 50 beds, and that year $550,000 was raised by a community drive sparked by the TCMS. At the victory banquet the chairman of the drive, Mr. David Connelly, who had donated and raised funds for equipment of the X-ray department, dropped dead at the podium while giving a victory speech. Subsequently the department was named for him.

By the end of 1925 the building had been closed in, three floors completed, the cornerstone laid and blessed, and the powerhouse and laundry completed. A contingent of Sisters had arrived to open and operate the hospital. They were Sisters Cornelia, Leonina, and Calybetha, and others whose names have been lost.

Before the hospital was formally opened Dr. C.D.F. O’Hern admitted Mrs. Charles Brown on February 14th, 1926 (Valentine’s Day) and she gave birth to Lillian Patricia, the first Child born at St. John’s. She is Mrs. Phillip Day, of Tulsa, and four of her children were born at St. John’s.

Official opening was February 22, 1926 and the 50 beds available were filled and cots set up for the overflow. One elderly gentleman came to the hospital with all his worldly possessions-a flock of chickens. He died and his possessions were removed to the Sisters’ poultry yard. That summer of 1926 two floors of the South Wing was finished and the school of nursing opened. The X-ray department was opened, and named the David F. Connelly Memorial X-ray. Sister Angesina came as the first Sister Superior and organized the opening and functioning of the hospital. She served from 1926 to 1932 and again from 1937 to 1940. To her must go much credit for the viability and success of the struggling hospital.

The medical staff organized and the first chief of staff, Dr. Fred Glass, took office for the year 1927. Dr. Glass, who later founded the Glass-Nelson clinic was a well known and respected surgeon who operated in spite of deformed, almost useless fingers, burned and contracted from setting fractures under the fluoroscope. His cofounder of the Glass-Nelson clinic, Dr. Frank Nelson, was chief of staff in 1945.

In 1927 the hospital situation in Tulsa was becoming steadily worse, there being only 259 hospital beds in the rapidly growing city. St. John’s remained uncompleted due to lack of funds. Morningside hospital had opened in 1922 at 512 S. Boulder and had added 21 beds to bring it up to 80 beds. In 1928 Morningside moved to 12th and Utica, financed by Mr. and Mrs. W. J. McNulty. In 1926 a committee was formed by the TCMS, which now had a membership of 156, to facilitate completion of St. John’s. $600,000 was raised by a Tulsa civic drive so that St. John’s could complete the remaining floors, which was done in 1928. Surgery, X-ray, and laboratories were opened in new quarters.

Also in 1928 Dr. Merle Springer opened the Springer Clinic on the corner of 6th and Cincinnati. Dr. Springer’s father was a good friend of Dr. Sam Kennedy, a pioneer Tulsa physician. They got drunk one night and the next morning discovered they had signed an oil lease with commitment to drill in Osage County. Everyone knew there was no oil in Osage County but they had to drill, and thus one of the largest oil fields in America was discovered. Kennedy built the Kennedy building, a Tulsa landmark for generations. By virtue of his father’s wealth Dr. Springer didn’t have to work, and his wife had tuberculosis so they spent most of their time in Colorado. But he brought in good doctors, including Homer Ruprecht, Carl Hotz, Don Mishler, D.L. Garrett, G.R. Russell, E.C. Hyatt, D.0. Smith, Vincel Sundgren, Joe Tyler, and many others. The Springer Clinic had a prominent place in the affairs of St. John’s until they moved to 61st and Yale in 1962 and affiliated with St. Francis Hospital.

The Medical Arts building at 6th and Boulder was built in 1929 and that same year Wade Sisler opened Mercy Hospital at 8th and Elgin. Sisler built his hospital after a disagreement with the sisters. Also in that year, 1929, my father, Robert M. Shepard, Sr., moved his family to Tulsa and opened his office for the practice of pulmonary diseases and tuberculosis. He joined the staff of St. John’s at that time, so there has been a R.M. Shepard on the medical staff for 70 of the hospital’s 73 years.

Opening the fifth floor in 1931 displaced the student nurses from their quarters on that floor so plans were made for a nurses residence, which was built and opened in 1936-37, providing 130 private rooms for the student nurses

Dr. D. L. Garrett was chief of staff in 1933. In that year he left the Springer Clinic to open an office for the practice of surgery-an office which has now been in continuous operation for 66 years and now operated by the fourth generation of surgeons. Dr. Garrett read the surgical literature in four languages, learned Russian and Hebrew, and was one of the first members of the Board of Surgery from Tulsa. He subscribed to Pravda, which got him investigated by the FBI. He was a founder of the Tulsa Surgical Society, and the last of the “Kitchen Table Surgeons”, who actually operated in farmhouses under the lights of a model “T” automobile, shone through the kitchen window.

This picture is of three titans of St. Johns. Dr. Garrett is on the left, Dr. Glass, and Sister Alfreda. Sister Affreda ruled Surgery with an autocratic hand for nearly 40 years. Her Teutonic wrath was distributed evenly from the highest placed surgeon to the lowest orderl. This was balanced with an uproarious sense of humor, a passionate love of good music, good food, and good wine. Once she engaged in a discussion with Don Mishler at the schedule board. Don is still feisty at 94 and no shrinking violet. The discussion became heated and escalated into fisticuffs. As they were separated, it was the consensus of the onlookers that Sister Affreda was ahead on points.

Here Sister Alfreda is shown with Sister Clara, originally known as Sister Cleopha. Sister Clara was the Saint of pediatrics, presiding over that department for over 40 years, beloved by all and with a God-given love of children. Last August she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee-75 years as a nun. She has been a nun longer than St. John has existed.

St John has always had an active volunteer program with many indispensable services being rendered by these dedicated ladies. They run the gift shop, the information desk, and perform may other duties of great value to the hospital. One of the most dedicated was Zola Brand, second from the left in this picture, who worked in the nursery and pediatrics twice a week for 47 years, 1943 to 1990. She is representative of these hard working and underappreciated ladies.

In 1933 Sister Gratiana was appointed Director of Nurses, a position she held until 1958. She set the standards and brought the school to an acknowledged level of excellence. She was assisted in this for most of her tenure by Virginia Anderson, a gifted instructor. Here is one of the early graduating classes.

In 1935 there were a number of unexplained deaths, chiefly children, over the country. Dr. Ivo Nelson, brother of Iron H. Nelson (of Palik-Nelson Laboratories and shown here), was the hospital pathologist at the time and he found the cause to be a suspension of sulfanilamide in ethylene glycol, which had recently come on the market. By animal tests he showed that the ethylene glycol caused tubular necrosis, with resulting kidney failure. His discovery caused an immediate withdrawal of the mixture and national prominence for him and the hospital. This was before the FDA.

Dr. Samuel Goodman was chief of staff in 1935. He had received advanced training in Kansas City and the Rockefeller Institute. He practiced in Tulsa from 1912 to 1963 (51 years). Dr. Goodman was the dean of Tulsa Internists and had what we would call today a “Carriage Trade” practice, since many of the community’s most prominent and wealthy citizens were his patients. He trained, or had in his office, many of the later prominent internists of the city, including S.C. Shepard, Felix Park, Phillip Schreck, and Robert Nathan. He is honored to this day by the yearly “Goodman Symposium”.

In October 1936 Waite Phillips donated $100,000 for an X-ray building in honor of his twin brother Wiate who had died at age 19. It was dedicated April 21, 1938 and at the same time an addition to the nurses’ residence was dedicated. All the older doctors will remember this X-ray building as it functioned until 1973 when it was demolished to make room for the North Tower. It was presided over for many years by the beloved Dr. Lucien Pascucci, who was chief of staff in 1964. Sister Johanna (formerly Sister Ursula) ran the department administratively for many years.

Someone always took up the slack. On one occasion a Mr. Griffin told Sister Agnesina to order a beautiful high altar for the chapel, but when the bill came he refused to pay it. Mr. Thomas Chestnut was a patient in the hospital at the time and he heard of what had happened and immediately gave sister a check for $5,000. Two weeks later he died of a heart attack.

A rapidly growing city, the influx of plants and workers during the war years, and increasing demands for medical care caused a chronic shortage of beds. St John had 1,959 admissions in 1926, 5,318 in 1936, and 10,926 in 1945. The total hospital capacity was 270 beds, and more space was needed. Plans were made for a new wing, extending to the South on 21st Street, enlarging the nurses’ residence and rectory, and a new surgery elevator. Ground was broken February 11, 1946 and the wing was opened May 12, 1948. It was financed by contributions of civic leaders and a large loan. St. John now had a capacity of 500 beds.

St. John’s was a center for care of poliomyelitis patients in the great epidemic of 1952. The polio ward was in the center of the first floor and contained 10 iron lungs and a number of respirators. Several hundred cases were treated and many died. I did 65 tracheotomies that summer and watched my best friend die in an iron lung.

In a diocesan drive W. K. Warren gave $15,000 with the understanding that no mention be made and all notices be sent to his office because his wife was just as good a Methodist as he was a Catholic, and they had agreed that whatever one gave to his or her church the other could match. So he didn’t want his wife to know. The notice and acknowledgement of the gift was sent to his house by mistake. I presume this made the Methodist Church very happy.

By 1953 admissions had doubled to 22,000 and the bed shortage again became acute. Elective cases waited up to three weeks for admission. Cots lined the halls in the obstetrical department and the situation was critical. It was determined that the county was short 444 beds. Pressure built for another wing of 202 beds to extend to the West on Utica. This would require 3.5 million dollars. The sisters still owed $1,576,000 on the 1946 South Wing addition. A community drive was planned, starting with the doctors.

Dr. John McDonald was appointed chairman of the doctor’s drive. Dr. McDonald was an orthopedic surgeon of national prominence and was chief of staff in 1940. He had originally worked with Dr. Wade Sisler, was on many national boards and committees, and was active in Catholic circles. Dr. McDonald planned a kickoff dinner for the doctors for January 12, 1954. Most staff members knew only they were urgently required to attend a special meeting. This was the famed chicken dinner enshrined in legend. At the end of the dinner we were asked to look under our plates. There we found a slip of paper with the pledge amount required. Mine was for $3,000, a concession to new staff members as the rest were for $5,000, At the time, $3,000 nearly equaled my total net worth. Those who indignantly rose to leave found that the doors had been locked. A near riot ensued. Later, after tempers cooled and a more reasonable approach employed, the doctors responded with a respectable contribution, which was followed by a community drive in March, led by W.K. Warren. Here R.K. Lane, chairman of Public Service Company of Oklahoma, has given his shirt to the campaign. The shirt is being waved by John Mabee. The full amount was not obtained until an additional contribution was made by the Mabee foundation and $793,000 was obtained in Hill-Burton funds. Mr. W.K. Warren contributed the last million dollars, which caused the goal to be reached. In gratitude for Mr. Warren’s gift a plaque was hung in the main hall of the first floor. Years later, Mr. Warren learned that St. John’s was accepting residents from Oral Roberts University for additional training, and he demanded that the plaque be removed. The enmity between him and Oral Roberts was well known.

Groundbreaking took place July 19, 1955, Five people who had witnessed the original groundbreaking in 1920, including Monsignor Fletcher, were present. This wing was the first one air-conditioned. In spite of the summer heat the conventions of that day required full dress with coat and tie. One weekend Carl Lindstrom came in shorts to make rounds and was sent home by the sisters to change clothes.

On December 12, 1955 came the stupendous news that St. John’s was one of 75 in the nation that would receive $250,000 from the Ford Foundation for expansion and research. This gave rise to a gaffe spread by the wire services over the country and appeared in Time magazine. When asked his reaction to this great windfall from the Ford foundation, administrator Ken Wallace replied “It’s like coming down on Christmas morning and finding a Cadillac under the tree.”

The new wing opened March 6, 1957, the ribbon cutting being performed by Monsignor Heiring, P.C. Lauinger, R. K. Lane, and Sister Superior Magdeline, At this time the new in-house dial telephone system was activated. The new surgery opened March 24. The last surgery in the old suite was a caesarean section, which resulted in triplets. The old surgery was converted to laboratories. The cobalt bomb was installed August 28th. And nearly all departments were relocated or realigned. This is how the hospital looked in 1958. The X-ray building is to the left, the old hospital in the center and the new west wing on Utica

In 1960 there were 137 physicians on the hospital staff. There are now 685.

Patients were segregated until 1960. Negro patients were assigned to one north of the hospital. In 1960 Dr. Liebendorfer admitted a black female to the three-bed porch ward on three center without telling admissions of her race. The other two ladies were scandalized and kept the sheets over their heads but later all three became fast friends. This was the entering wedge and segregation was ended shortly thereafter.

The Tulsa area hospitals had separate intern and resident training programs until 1969 when the Surgical Education Trust was formed to organize a citywide resident training program. It was followed by trusts in internal medicine and OB-GYN for the same purpose. In 1972 these were absorbed into the Tulsa Medical Education Foundation which managed all the training programs until the O.U. Medical School, Tulsa Branch, was established in 1974. St. John was always a strong supporter of the training programs, contributing unstintingly both facilities and money. At the present time the department of Surgery of the medical school occupies one floor of the old nurses residence and the ground floor of the Doctors building, the space being provided by the hospital.

In 1967 the Alexander Trust funded the $70,000 Coronary Intensive Care Unit.

In 1968 the rest of the block was purchased, so the hospital owned all the land between Utica and Wheeling and 19th and 21st Streets.

In 1969 the Lay Advisory Board was formed, consisting of civic leaders, businessmen, and hospital supporters. It has been very active in planning and advising in the affairs of the hospital.

In 1970 the new Chapel and Convent were finished.

1971-Approval was received from the Tulsa Area Health and Planning Council for a 14-story tower, with capability of going to 723 beds.

1972-New cardiac catheterization and special procedures unit was installed.

In 1973, after a long struggle with the bureaucracy, ground was broken for the $44 million dollar North Tower, using the same shovel used for every ground breaking since 1920, here wielded by Dr. Worth Gross, chief of staff in 1973. The tower was built without any interference or inconvenience to the function of the hospital, a tribute to advance planning under the able direction of Dr. Jack Richardson, who was chairman of the building committee and chief of Staff in 1969. In this year the organizational structure of the hospital was changed. New bylaws were instituted. The Board of Governors became the Joint Conference Committee and its makeup was changed to include the president, vice president, and three elected members of the staff, and the chief executive Officer and representatives of the administration selected by her.

The school of nursing graduated its last class in 1976. The 44 million dollar North Tower was dedicated on February 22, 1976, exactly 50 years after the first dedication of the original hospital. This is how the hospital looked after completion of the North Tower with all wings and the original hospital still standing. The name was changed from St. John’s Hospital to St. John Medical Center. Capacity was now 603 beds. An 8 million dollar fund drive was successfully completed.

Funds were now easier to raise as the reputation and credit of the hospital had been established. The community had always responded to fund drives and much had been contributed by the Chapman foundation, Waite Phillips, the Mabee Foundation, the Alexander Trust, and others. Ray Siegfried was involved in all the fund drives and raised many millions of dollars for St. John’s. Supporters heavy with both time and money included W.K. Warren, W.G. Skelly, and A.E. Bradshaw.

In 1977 the original hospital and all the old hospital wings were demolished except the West wing fronting on Utica, which was now renamed the South Wing and connected to the North tower by a new building. Over 100,000 babies had been born in the old hospital. The hospital had now reached the configuration that exists today.

1978-St. John’s Doctors Building acquired.

1979-All indebtedness refinanced by a successful tax-exempt bond issue at 6.6% Interest. The issue sold out the first day.

1981-cardiovascular institute opened. Dr. Wayne Neal presided over the cardiac catheterization laboratory for many years. It is now directed by Dr. Antonio DeLeon, Jr.

1983-Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother celebrated their 100th.anniversary. The Physicians Building is started and completed the following year..

1985-The expanded minor emergency center was opened at 41st and Mingo and new centers opened at Glenpool and Skiatook.

1986-The Glass-Nelson Clinic was acquired, the medical office park and St. John Health Plaza were started and completed the following year.

1990-The Utica Tower building was acquired and that same year the Wheeling medical building was completed.

During the early years the organizational structure of the hospital formed the foundation of the unique relationship between administration and medical staff, which to my knowledge was unequalled anywhere else. The center of this relationship was the Board of Governors, now the joint conference committee. This body received all communications from the executive committee of the staff, individual physicians, and from the administration. Here all matters of mutual concern were debated and decisions made. The joint collaboration between administration and medical staff in this pivotal group was the basis of the mutual trust and lack of an adversarial atmosphere rarely found. In my opinion it was the reason for the “St. John family” atmosphere. During the years I served on this committee I never saw a failure to reach a decision mutually satisfactory to all, and I never saw a decision reversed by the board of directors.

The organizational chart of those early years was simple, linear, uncomplicated and direct. It may be compared to the complex organizational chart of today, required by a large, multifaceted institution.

The Board of Directors was composed of civic leaders and executives who gave generously of time and expertise in service to the hospital. Homage must be paid to Joe Parker, Ed. Daly, William LaFortune, Dr. Bill Jacobs (chief of staff in 1962), as well as P.C Lauinger, Earl Mulmed, Al Boudreau, John Conway, and many other members of the board.

For this happy state of affairs tribute should be given to a number of individuals. On the physicians side was D.L. Edwards, Sr., who served as chairman of the Board of Governors for 12 years, 1944 to 1956. He was followed by Dr. Earl Mulmed who served as chairman of the Board of Governors-Joint Conference Committee from 1956 to 1972. Dr. Mulmed was the first physician member of the board of directors, serving from 1972 to 1995. He was instrumental in obtaining the coronary care unit, and at one time or another was on every hospital committee. His unceasing efforts on behalf of the hospital for 45 years earned him the title of “Mr. St John”. Physicians who labored long and quietly on behalf of the staff include., Maurice Searle, J.D. Shipp, Hays Yandell, C.S. Lewis, J. B. Thompson, Richard McDowell, E.N. Lubin, Tex Goen and many others.

Henry Browne, chief of staff in 1936, was the dean of Tulsa Urologists and a pioneer in transuretheral surgery. Dr. Homer Ruprecht was famed as an electrocardiographer and at 96 is the oldest living chief of staff. His tenure was in 1967.

On the administrative side tribute must be paid to Ken Wallace, who served as a faithful friend of doctors and loyal servant to the Sisters from 1958 to 1968, He was succeeded by Blaise Blanchard who served in the same capacity from 1968 until his death in 1992. Wallace and Blanchard spanned 34 years at St. John. Carrol Craft, who has now been at St. John for 20 years, and Mr. Richard Boone for 15 years, have continued in this same tradition. They and the sisters understand that the function of a hospital is to care for the sick. They are attuned to the needs and concerns of the medical staff and balance this with the need of the hospital to function efficiently and with fiscal responsibility. It was this collegiality and recognition of mutual goals that nurtured the “St. John atmosphere”.

From the beginning the order of the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother appointed a sister superior administrator for a three-year term with one reappointment permitted for a second term. There have been only 9 sisters superior in the 73 years. This tradition continued until the appointment of Sister Mary Therese in 1974. It was then realized that St. John Medical Center had become a big business with an increasing budget, which has now reached 300 million dollars a year. Sister Therese, with her degree in hospital administration, years of experience, and obvious ability became indispensable. The order therefore split the duties between Sisters’ affairs and hospital affairs. Sister Therese was to remain as chief executive officer and the sisters would elect a Sister Superior to run the local religious affairs. Sister Therese, after 25 years as CEO of St. John Medical Center, is now passing the torch to the first non-Sister CEO, Mr. David Pynn. Sister will continue to watch over St. John in her capacity as CEO of the St. John Health System and CEO of the Marian Health System, which is the parent corporation of all of the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother healthcare ministries in the United States. The burgeoning success of St. John Medical center is a standing tribute to the skills and compassion of Sister Therese.

Follow us on Facebook