From Madison’s founding in 1837 until April 1903, when Madison General Hospital first opened its doors, the city was served by a series of inadequate private hospitals, usually located in small homes. In fact, hospitals were often low on citizens’ priority list. As reported in the Wisconsin State Journal on June 7, 1856: “Before our city fathers erect a hospital or engage in any of those magnificent projects which, however dazzling to the imagination, are nevertheless rather expensive luxuries… we would like to call their attention to the condition of our streets. They are full of filth.”
On July 2, 1900, Dr. George Keenan proposed selling the Soldiers’ Orphans Home property on Spaight Street, which he owned, for $10,000 so it could be turned into a hospital. However, a deed restriction expressly forbade that the property ever be used for such a purpose. Madisonians rose to oppose Keenan’s initiative. Mrs. N. B. Parkinson wrote the Wisconsin State Journal: “I have lived many years near the old Orphans Home property, and notwithstanding the favor with which people a mile or more away look upon it as a site for a hospital, I still object to its purchase for that purpose, and hope that we who live in the neighborhood may be allowed to be the judges in this matter.”
On July 4 Mrs. Wayne Ramsay, daughter of James Bowen, provided an alternative. She offered 4 ½ acres in Greenbush, along Mills Street, for a hospital site, provided $10,000 be spent to erect the Bowen Memorial Hospital.
At the end of September 1900, proponents of a hospital opened a 20-room facility in a renovated house at 223 N. Hamilton. Individuals, such as Mrs. William Vilas, furnished the rooms.
There were those who opposed wasting time on a hospital at all:
“It has been surprising to me that our good people – those looking after cleanliness and health – have said nothing about the fact that we have no public bathing places anywhere on our lakes. Quit your hospital work a minute or two and give thought to bathing resorts that produce cleanliness and health.”