How the people of Cookeville helped their public hospital navigate the often-stormy political and financial waters of change in health care is a story as full of intrigue, suspense, heartache and joy as any other major event in local history.
And now there’s a book chronicling that sometimes turbulent history. The People’s Hospital: A History of Cookeville Regional Medical Center, 1950-2010 traces the origins of the city-owned hospital, which began as a 15-bed private clinic near the town square in 1921, to its status today as a regional referral center.
“The transformation in health care in this country since World War II is mind-boggling,” said local author Laura Clemons, who was commissioned by The Foundation at CRMC to research and write a history of the hospital to be released in time for its 60th anniversary this December. “It’s really nothing short of a revolution, and it played out in every large city and many rural areas like ours throughout the country, changing our lives in numerous ways.”
Telling the story of a hospital is a rare form of local history, and yet hospitals play a huge role in the life of any community. That’s especially true when the hospital is public, said Clemons, because its origins and fate are inextricably linked to the community that owns it.
“I took on this project in part because it’s an inherently interesting topic – it’s about life and death,” Clemons said. “But it was also a way to learn more about Cookeville’s history. To understand how we came to have a hospital in the first place meant understanding what the city was like in the mid-1900s, when the radical shift in health care began.
“When the people of Cookeville decided to build and operate their own hospital in the late 1940s, knowingly or not, they laid the groundwork for huge change in this city,” she said. “I believe the case can be made that that decision rivals only the one that resulted in Tennessee Tech University. Those two sectors of society – health care and higher education – have since become industries, and they’ve helped make Cookeville the city it is today.”
Cookeville bought its first hospital from the surgeon who built it, William Howard, in 1927, because the hospital was on the verge of bankrupting its founder. From then until 1950, the city contracted with nurses to run the hospital. It wasn’t until construction began on its replacement, Cookeville General on the west side of town, that the city hired a professional trained in hospital administration. Since then, 17 men and women have served as administrators.
“I came to this story objectively; I didn’t know much about hospitals or health care before beginning the research,” said Clemons. “So a lot of things surprised me. The fact that the first hospital in Cookeville was located on Broad Street -- and was used from 1921 to 1950 – surprised me. The fact that it wasn’t the first hospital in Putnam County, given Cookeville’s population and its position as the county seat -- surprised me. The first hospital here was a private facility, St. Raphael Mission in Monterey, which served patients from 1914 to 1943.
“But I think what surprised me most was the fact that history really does repeat itself,” she said. “The fate of the hospital has been subject to two major public discussions that culminated in multiple referendums. In the 1940s, it took two referendums for the residents to decide whether to build Cookeville General in the first place. And in the 1990s, it took three referendums for residents to decide whether to maintain ownership of the hospital or sell or lease it. The debate over the hospital has often been contentious, but when it’s viewed over a continuum – over the events of the past 60-plus years – it’s easier to understand why there were differing opinions. A lot was at stake.”
From 2008 to mid-2010, Clemons conducted well over 100 interviews with 45 Cookevillians associated with the hospital and combed through more than 50 written sources, including 64 years’ worth of newspaper coverage of the hospital by the Putnam County Herald and its successor, the Herald-Citizen. From the beginning, the project was meant not only to illuminate an important portion of Cookeville’s history, but to do it quickly, while there were members of the original Cookeville General staff still living.
"Our Foundation Board of Directors realized how easy it is to ‘lose’ the history of an institution,” said Gary Curto, executive director of the Foundation. “When the last of the original seven physicians, Dr. J.T. DeBerry, passed away in 2007, the board members agreed that the time had come to start gathering our history, before more of it was lost.”
The resulting book, a hardcover 128-page edition, chronicles the growth of the hospital since the 1920s and contains more than 250 photographs. The People’s Hospital is on sale at the CRMC Auxiliary Gift Shop, located in the lobby of the North Patient Tower. Cost is $25. Gift Shop hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Fridays. For more information, call The Foundation at CRMC at 931-783-2037.