Stock Market Crash, Fires and Floods
It is incredibly rare for an organization to survive and thrive for two centuries, and any longstanding hospital, by definition, will face its fair share of obstacles.
Between its dedication in 1915 and the Great Depression, the newly renamed and relocated University Hospital experienced a number of issues—some self-inflicted, some resulting from man-made complications, and some that were simply acts of God. Fortunately, the hospital counted among its ranks dedicated people who were ready to weather the storm.
The “Great Fire” of 1916 swept through Augusta, hitting the 100 block of Greene Street, where many Medical College of Georgia physicians lived and worked. While the blaze ravaged the property, more insidious political pressures took their toll on hospital leadership. University Hospital’s superintendent Dr. W.C. Lyle resigned in September 1916 “rather than submit to their tactics.”
Illness, politics and financial troubles led to a revolving door of superintendents, including one who resigned after eight months, “discouraged and disgusted.” After a considerable hunt, Dr. Carlisle Lentz of Johns Hopkins University took over in 1921 as the fifth superintendent in as many years. Lentz joined two other Hopkins-trained doctors who established a proto-residency program at University Hospital: Dr. Virgil P. Sydenstricker became resident physician in 1919, with Dr. Charles H. Watt serving as resident surgeon.
Over the course of Lentz’s 10-year tenure at University Hospital, he decreased the financial deficit and issued the first formal annual report. The hospital received a Grade A rating from the American College of Surgeons, but there was still considerable work to be done. Space constraints and racial segregation proved problematic for University’s nurses. Six or seven white nurses shared a room in the Barrett wing, while up to 17 African American nurses shared a single room in the Lamar wing.
The Doughty Nurses Home, named for longtime leader Dr. William H. Doughty Jr., was completed in 1927, providing expanded housing for white nurses. The Stoney Nurses Home, however, would not be completed until 1940. Named for Dr. George N. Stoney, “one of Augusta’s first black physicians and probably the first black M.D. to practice medicine at the old University Hospital,” the new facility provided much-needed accommodations for the hospital’s growing corps of African American nurses.
After a few years of progress under Dr. Lentz, a drastic “omen of a change in fortunes for University” came with the flood of 1929. Water poured over the Savannah River’s crude levee structure and inundated the downtown area. The early October flood presaged the stock market crash and the Great Depression. In trying times, the hospital had on hand the passionate and dedicated people to literally rise above the floodwaters. In 1954, Director of Nurses Alice Stewart recalled her experience during that time:
“No lights. Dynamo under water. No gas. Water up to the main hall in the hospital. Nurses marooned in the hospital, who were on duty when the floods came. Others in the nurse’s [sic] homes, who were off duty. Personnel watching the water line—personnel going room to room with tall cathedral candles furnished by Augusta Funeral Homes, delivered by way of boats. All went to prove that when there’s a crisis[,] people become just folks and buckle down to business.”