Alexandria Hospital: A legacy of expertise

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Alexandria Hospital: A legacy of expertise

May 3, 1997 
By Pamela Cressey

This week I have been experiencing history first-hand. I am sitting in the cardiac surgery waiting room at Alexandria Hospital waiting to speak to my 86-old father after open heart surgery. I am surrounded by my own thoughts of family history, my father’s life and his fine example, and the meaning of my own life. I am also engulfed by the warmth, generosity and technical competence of the Alexandria Hospital staff--a legacy which extends back 125 years to 1872. I am eternally grateful to Miss Julia Johns, founder of the "Alexandria Infirmary," and the many past and present individuals serving in staff and volunteer positions. My father is alive thanks to the living tradition of community care embodied by everyone I have interacted with at the hospital.

Just recently a special dedication took place in the front lobby. A new 3-dimensional collage created by Lawrence Romorini uses objects, pictures and words to depict the hospital’s 125 year history. The artist has designed memorabilia boards such as this for other notables, such as USA Today, John Hopkins University, Michael Jackson and Oprah Winfrey. Reading counter clockwise, you can follow the history of the hospital from its founding to the present with tidbits from the past.

Many firsts are recorded, which let you test your history IQ. For instance, where was the first hospital located? It certainly was not in its current location, which was then far out of town. The infirmary sat on the southwest corner of South Fairfax and Duke streets in the Dr. Murphy house. Who performed the first surgery? Dr. George T. Klipstein performed an amputation on Christmas Day, 1882 when a railroad worker’s leg was crushed. When was the first outpatient care provided? The dispensary opened in 1900 and set the stage for outpatient treatment. Who established the first American emergency room with full-time doctors? Alexandria Hospital in 1960.

Julia Johns was the daughter of Bishop John Johns (1796-1876) of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and Julianna Johnson. She was born in 1822 in Frederick, Maryland, and moved to Baltimore, Richmond, and Williamsburg as her father assumed more responsible roles in the church, eventually becoming the president of the College of William and Mary. By 1854, the family had moved to Alexandria, and in 1861 Johns became bishop and removed to Richmond, returning here after the Civil War. Julia died in 1883, twelve years to the day of the first meeting she called of ladies who were "charitably disposed." Her obituary stated that her character was "remarkable for the most attractive social qualities, for extensive general information, and most of all for her devotion to the study of the sacred word of God...."

One obituary noted: "To her noble efforts, even while sick and suffering, Alexandria owes the existence of the Infirmary, and many of the poor of our city speak her name with tender blessings."

Julia is buried near her father at the Virginia Theological Seminary, which is so near the hospital today. The Johns lived there at Malvern where they "looked upon fields of green and flowers in rich luxuriance and the noble old river in the distance." When Julia entertained ladies "On the lawn were spread tables, covered with strawberries, pitchers of rich milk, with tea...." The ladies would gather "wild marguerites, weaving them with grasses into bunches" and then assemble on the portico to sing and pray. Ion 1964 the Sunday Star carried a story about Julia and the rose bush which once was on her grave. Apparently, Miss Agnes Donaldson on Seminary Hill had two bushes descended from this once. Her mother had picked a rose, and her grandmother put it into the ground. Once it grew, she called it a "painted rose" with its pink shading on white petals.

Today the Alexandria Hospital is surrounded by blooming flowers, perhaps another legacy of Julia Johns. I thank her for a kind heart, which continues beating collectively within those working in the hospital today. My dad still has a working heart, thanks to your hearts, heads and hands.