By the Community, For the Community:
The Fifty Year History of Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital
Chapter 1: Built by the Community to Aid the Community
From its modest beginnings in 1959 as a community hospital to its current standing as the area's premier regional hospital and health center, Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital (PIH) continues to enhance the vitality and well-being of the communities it so proudly serves. Setting the highest standards and exceeding them has been the hallmark of PIH throughout its 50 year history. For this healthcare institution was built and supported, ground up, by a can-do community and know-how leadership determined to transform the impossible into the possible. A goal PIH continues to strive for each and every day.
Hundreds of years before the existence of either PIH or the City of Whittier, the area was home to the Gabrielinos Indians. Following the Spanish Conquest, the territory was governed by Spain and then Mexico. When California gained United States statehood in 1850, large tracts of land in the region passed through several hands until 1868 when Jacob Gerkens, a German immigrant, filed a Homestead Act claim on 160 mustard-covered acres on the fertile slopes of the Puente Hills. Several land transactions later, in 1887, Aquilla Pickering, a Chicago businessman, and a group of Quaker Friends purchased the property and established the Pickering Land and Water Company. They named the small settlement Whittier, after the poet and fellow Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier.
The Friends subdivided the property and opened the colony to all “fair-minded people” who were eager to build a better life. The settlement thrived, thanks partly to Whittier's reputation for tolerance, community service, and forward-looking citizenry and partly to the railway boom and rate wars offering one-way tickets to Southern California from the Midwest for as little as $1 apiece.
By 1898, the City of Whittier was incorporated and hard-working people gravitated to the area, attracted by the 1900 Montebello Oil Strike and burgeoning agriculture, citrus, and walnut industries. Within two decades, Uptown Whittier had become a bustling commercial center, serving 9,000 people and boasting a theater, multi-storied bank buildings, and hotels. So great was the pull to California that even throughout the Depression years, the town's population increased to 15,000 – augmented, in part, by men and women seeking employment in the citrus groves and packing houses.
Despite the economic downturn, the financial backbone of Whittier – its prosperous core of ranchers, fruit growers, and businesses related to local oil interests – weathered the slump and rallied yet again. In due time, the inescapable economic and demographic forces associated with World War II and the Korean War transformed Southern California in general and “The City of Trees,” as Whittier was also known, in particular. Military mobilization, government contracting and war-related industries drew an ever-increasing stream of new residents into Los Angeles County. The average number of people arriving into the area jumped from 315 per day in 1920 to 476 in 1950 to 583 by 1954! Once settled in the “Golden State,” few chose to leave.
Like many other Southern California communities, Whittier experienced unprecedented post-WWII growth. Fueled largely by housing assistance from the Veterans Administration and the Federal Housing Administration, vast subdivisions sprung up on huge tracts of land between the retreating ranches and orange groves. Moreover, the baby boom was in full tilt and the composition and health needs of the new residents were changing radically. By 1954, the area͇s population had soared to approximately 158,000 and the Los Angeles County Planning Commission projected another 30,000 would move into the area during 1955 alone, with an additional 31,000 expected by 1958.
At the time, the Whittier area was a specific case of a state-wide problem: California had less than two thirds of the total estimated hospital and health facilities needed to meet minimum federal standards. Alarmingly, the sole healthcare facility serving its escalating population was the municipally owned, 94-bed Murphy Memorial Hospital. Built in 1921 with a $300,000 donation by Col. Simon J. Murphy, the hospital honored the memory of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Simon J. Murphy, who were among the city's first residents and founders of Murphy Oil Co. By the 1950s, the facility was woefully small and obsolete. Due to persistent overcrowding, administrators were often forced to turn patients away or quarter them in cots lining the corridors. At 1/2 hospital bed per 1000 of population, Murphy Memorial's capacity didn't come close to the mandated state requirement of 3 beds per 1000. A more obvious community need was difficult to imagine.
Fortunately, federal help to construct new health facilities was on the way in the form of the 1946 Hill-Burton Act funds, a highly attractive inducement to communities like Whittier to organize and fundraise to remedy their acute situation. These allotments, however, were restricted to city, county, or hospital districts and only government agencies or nonprofit corporations could apply. Moreover, each state was given the authority to evaluate its own regional hospital needs and distribute matching state and federal monies accordingly. Given California's substantial backlog of applications, competition for these resources between communities was stiff as each inched its way to the top of the priority list.
“Why Don't We Do Something?“
Talk of how to solve Whittier's critical hospital bed shortage had peppered many a civic conversation for years: one group supported a Murphy Memorial renovation and expansion, despite a feasibility study declaring the approach “impractical.” Another advocated building a new, modern hospital to replace the aging institution. No amount of discussion had resolved the impasse until two women – Mrs. Edward J. (Mary) Blanchard and Mrs. Albert (Marjorie) Haendiges – took action. “Over their coffee cups,“ they discovered the other had been thinking about the problem for years. Mrs. Blanchard's husband, Edward Blanchard, MD, had often complained about Murphy Memorial's deteriorating state. “One night my husband came home,” she recalled, “and told me he had just put Dick Nixon's father in the hospital and all there was available was a gurney in the hallway!”
Mrs. Haendiges had also experienced the problem of overcrowding first-hand when, in 1943, she'd taken her son to Murphy Memorial for emergency care. Even back then, the facilities were so deficient the child had been treated in a makeshift station under a lighted “exit” sign! According to a Whittier News account, Blanchard and Haendiges decided…“the men had been talking about new hospital facilities for 8 years but nothing is ever done about it…[so we said to each other]…Why don't we do something?” Like any well thought-out operation, they first needed some “intelligence” to determine if a community campaign would garner sufficient doctor support. Their plan: to eavesdrop on a Murphy Hospital staff meeting at the Women's Clubhouse where a meeting had been called to discuss the merits of enlarging Murphy Memorial vs. building a modern facility.
Out of sight, crouched in a closet adjacent to the meeting room, the two women were overjoyed to hear so many doctors enthusiastically endorse the idea of a new hospital. At the close of the gathering, they snuck out of their secret hiding place, slightly guilty, but confident they would receive sufficient backing from the medical community to give the effort a go. Not long after, the women invited a city councilman, a member of the Murphy Memorial medical staff, and a member of the Murphy board to a luncheon at the Haendiges home. “We had our nerve,” the Los Angeles Times quoted Mrs. Blanchard as saying, “but it worked out all right. They gave us their moral support to seek a new hospital and that was all we needed.”