Chester County Hospital circa 1900.

Credit for all photos: Hagley Museum and Library

In the last decade of the 1800s, the town in the heart of Chester County – West Chester – was a thriving community of 8,000 people. There were many educational institutions, as well as churches, commercial businesses, rail service, a newspaper and an established fire company. Physicians, too, lived and practiced in the county since before the Revolutionary War, and the Chester County Medical Society – thought to the be oldest in the state – was flourishing.

But, Chester County did not have a hospital.

Thomas Dunn, the first president of the CCH medical staff.

Earliest Roots

For a time in the early 1880s, two doctors opened a small dispensary in a couple of rented rooms above the local hardware and gunsmith shop in the borough. They cared for the poor and indigent, but it closed for financial reasons after just two years, even though they were treating about 35 patients weekly.

The dispensary may have failed, but the seed for a hospital had been planted. The community had witnessed what a local medical facility could provide, and before long, there was renewed activity to establish a hospital. On May 19, 1892, local citizens joined with physicians at a public meeting to discuss the possibility of a hospital for West Chester. Committees were formed to solicit contributions, to prepare a charter and to write the rules of organization. They documented their reasoning for the Chester County Medical Society to circulate to the people of Chester County. The committee noted the inconvenience and danger of sending patients needing immediate care to hospitals in Philadelphia, and said a local facility could serve both the needy and “well-to-do” providing “a source of revenue for its support.”

By the end of the summer, a Board of Managers was selected and eight physicians were appointed to provide medical care at the planned hospital on a rotating basis. A charter was granted to the founders of the “West Chester Hospital” on September 13, 1892, making it the first hospital in Chester County. The name was changed to “The Chester County Hospital” one year later.

Dr. Thomas D. Dunn was elected as the first president of the medical staff. He is credited with being the driving force behind the hospital’s founding. “It was through his efforts that this hospital was first founded; its prosperity was the dearest wish of his heart; upon it he lavished time, strength and energy,” stated the hospital’s 1898 annual report.

The first CCH building, circa 1893

Breaking New Ground

Wasting no time, Dunn and the founders purchased land on the north side of Marshall Square Park and construction began in late October. Community support was widespread, and concerts, dances, cake sales and children’s fairs were planned to raise money. Despite the vigorous fundraising, money was limited. Undeterred, the Board of Managers proceeded with building just the rear portion of the main building to house patients until the total facility could be completed.

The provisional hospital, which featured a kitchen/equipment room on the first floor and two patient wards and a room for the head nurse on the second floor, opened in March 1893. On March 3, the hospital admitted its first surgical patient – Benjamin Bush.

Bush was discovered lying near the West Chester Railroad tracks with both legs badly mangled. He was carried to the baggage room of the Market Street station where Drs. Isaac Massey and Dunn were summoned to bandage his limbs. Bush was loaded onto a grocery wagon and carted to the hospital where his legs were amputated.

The surgery took place in the hospital’s kitchen. Massey led the surgical procedure. He was assisted by several physicians including Ellwood Patrick, Joseph Scattergood, Sr. and Mary Cheyney (the hospital’s first female physician).  Scattergood described the scene: "Everybody was jammed together around the operating table… when we ran short of ligatures Dr. McClurg pulled some black silk thread from his pocket which was used to tie off arteries. Naturally, infection followed. Only the instruments had been boiled and they were few at that. None of the emergency ligatures were sterilized, but the patient survived."

Community Support

A Union soldier during the Civil War, Bush’s plight generated great compassion, and the community contributed to the purchase of artificial legs for him. His case also strengthened local support for the new hospital. Within a few months of the hospital opening, the women of Chester County enthusiastically rallied behind it and pledged their support. The Women’s Auxiliary, which is still active today, quickly ballooned to eight branches and nearly 400 members. Members organized donation days to help replenish the supply cupboard and created many fundraisers, such as spelling bees and lectures, to raise funds.

With the community squarely behind it, the new hospital grew from a five-cot room to a 44-bed facility. Separate wards for men, women, children and obstetrics were added. The size of the Medical Staff increased, as well, and a Training School for Nurses opened. Students attended year round, and eventually a nurses’ residence was built for them on Matlack Street adjacent to the hospital.

Because of its need for more space and a modern infrastructure, the Board of Managers continued to invest in the growth of the building. By the turn of the century, the brick hospital had a women’s ward on the east wing of the building and a men’s ward on the west. A self-contained contagious ward was added in the early 1900s and would prove to be an imperative addition with the outbreaks of typhoid, measles, scarlet fever and the Spanish Flu.

Despite all of the advances within the facility at Marshall Square Park, Chester County Hospital was in need of a larger and more modern building. This was a major concern of the Board of Managers and Medical Staff in the late 1910s and early 1920s.

The Longwood Connection

The nationwide Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 reached Chester County in the fall and the hospital admitted 240 patients. The influenza outbreak forever changed Chester County Hospital; among its victims was a young man named Lewes A. Mason, an employee of industrialist Pierre S. du Pont of Longwood Gardens.

Mason was no stranger to Chester County Hospital, having received treatment there in 1916 after injuring his hip. Due to the great care he received then, du Pont summoned hospital physicians to come to his Longwood farm to attend to Mason when he contracted the Spanish Flu. In spite of their best efforts, physicians could not save Mason. Devastated by this loss, du Pont was inspired to make a grand gesture to thank Chester County Hospital and the care they had given to Mason.

Long believing that "charity was best, when it began at home," du Pont envisioned an expanded state-of-the-art facility that would serve the people of West Chester and its neighboring communities. He facilitated this idea with a $1 million gift and gave his personal involvement in the design and construction. The hospital’s annual report of 1918 called it “a burst of sunlight after the storm.” (Pierre S. du Pont A Rare Genius)

The duPonts at the laying of the cornerstone for the new hospital.

A New Location Overlooking the Borough

Though plans were drawn after Mason’s death, the recession following World War I impeded immediate construction on the facility. By 1923, it was decided that the only suitable means of expanding and modernizing Chester County Hospital was to build an entirely new hospital. Finally, in 1924, with du Pont's approval, land for the new hospital was purchased on a hill overlooking West Chester, about one mile from Marshall Square Park. The hospital still resides there today.

From the moment du Pont committed to expanding and modernizing the hospital, he and wife Alice were involved in every major facet of the hospital’s development. They were there for the groundbreaking on March 20, 1924, where they helped set the cornerstone in place. He set up a building fund – with 10,000 shares of DuPont Company stock -- and another fund for the maintenance of the institution. She personally chose the patient linens, engraved tea sets and floral-patterned china. He selected and worked closely with the architects, York & Sawyer, and he insisted the hospital consult an efficiency expert. The philanthropic couple stayed actively involved in the hospital's growth and success until Alice’s passing in 1944 and Pierre’s death in 1954.

The hospital opened at its current location on East Marshall Street in 1925. Architecturally inspired by the du Ponts’ visit to the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, Italy, the new building featured smooth white stucco walls, open porches (loggias) for fresh-air healing, iconic terra cotta roof tiles and marble accents. In memory of Lewes A. Mason, a large, polished brass medallion was prominently inlayed in the floor where patients, visitors, doctors and staff entered.

Today, the gleaming medallion is once again welcoming everyone to the front entrance as the hospital embarks on its largest expansion project since the building opened. In the intervening years, the hospital witnessed the expansion of its facility, the growth of its staff to about 2,300 employees, and the continual modernization of its technology. It persevered through depressions, recessions, wars, epidemics and financial crises. It welcomed and flourished under the leadership styles of presidents Norman W. Skillman, H.L. Perry Pepper and Michael J. Duncan.

Fostering a Unique Culture

The hospital set out to serve the community. “The purpose for which the corporation is formed is to…be open to all classes, without distinction of color or creed…and no cases of sickness or injury shall be refused admission to [the] hospital on account of the inability of the [patient] to pay the expenses of care and treatment…”

Through its entire 125 years, Chester County Hospital has stayed true to its core mission to take care of its community unconditionally. With a culture of caring that has been passed down from generation to generation, the focus of the doctors, nurses and employees has stayed on the community and taking care of the patients as if they were the staff’s own loved ones.

“The leadership came from each of them,” said retired president Pepper, who led the hospital for an unprecedented 33 years. “They were very proud of what they did, they knew what the right thing to do was, and they all worked effectively together. So this self-directed DNA was just part of the culture.”

Current president Duncan agreed. “Everyone who walks through the door is some employee’s family, friend or neighbor. That colors everything we do. We make eye contact. We greet each person. We cry when somebody loses a relative in an untimely way. It’s just so deeply personal and meaningful.”

Committed to preserving what he calls Chester County Hospital’s “secret sauce,” Duncan and his senior team implemented the hospital’s iCARE values of Innovation, Collaboration, Accountability, Respect and Excellence. Upon his arrival in 2011, he also instilled his personal leadership philosophy: Love people. Expect Excellence.

It was during this time the hospital’s leaders recognized that in order to sustain and meet the growing health needs of the community, it could no longer do it alone. Chester County Hospital became part of Penn Medicine in September 2013.

"Penn was head and shoulders above everyone else because they wanted us to be more than we [were…], and they were willing to invest more in our facility and technology and bring in new clinical programs," Duncan said. "They were appreciative of our existing culture, and they wanted a relationship where the local management team would be responding to the needs of the local community."

How to best serve Chester County and its surrounding neighbors continues to be the driving force for decisions. It drives the hospital to choose what new services to add, what features need to be in the new building, and what people to add to the patient care team.

The first 125 years of the hospital’s history may be in the past, but Chester County Hospital’s story about devotion to its community continues to unfold.

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