Lawrence Memorial Hospital celebrates centennial of commitment to community care

Published on January 17, 2021

LMH 19211921
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LMH Health West Campus 20212020 LMH Health West Campus

Lawrence Memorial Hospital celebrates centennial of commitment to community care

By Janice Early, LMH Health

LMH Health 100 Years Here for GoodOne hundred years ago today, Lawrence Memorial Hospital officially opened its doors. While that’s a milestone worthy of celebration for any organization, it’s the story of the founding of the hospital that deserves special recognition.

The story told through history is of an elderly man who had fallen in a seizure on a sidewalk near the Eldridge Hotel. There was no one around who knew the man, and Dr. Ralph E. Barnes was called to attend to him. He tried to take the man to a hospital. At the time, Lawrence was served only by small private hospitals owned by the physicians who operated them in connection with their practices. One of the hospitals was said to have a charity bed, but when the doctor called, it was occupied. The others said they had nothing available.

Dr. Barnes tried to find someone who might know the man and called on several homes, but no one was willing to take the man into their house, even for a night. While Dr. Barnes drove around trying to find a bed, the man died.

An idea that grew

Robert C. Rankin, the first chairman of Lawrence Memorial Hospital’s Board of Trustees who eventually served the city as mayor, recalls this story in a pamphlet, “An Idea That Grew.” It came from a paper read by him before the Old and New Club on April 5, 1945.

Rankin wrote that Dr. Barnes had told him very emphatically, that he was going to make it his business to create a place where a friendless old man could at least have a place to die, and he called attention to the fact that there was no publicly owned hospital in Lawrence where needy poor could be taken for treatment and care. Rankin said, “Would I help him promote something of the kind? My reply was that I was interested and would be glad to help in any way I could.”

Eventually Dr. Barnes went to the Social Service League, which Rankin described as “a band of good women with a few men” who tried to help the very poor and needy. In 1910 the League operated a charity health clinic in a portion of the old county jail, which stood at 546 Vermont Street, and in 1914 they agreed to install a bed in a room that was formerly a cell house. The Metropolitan Insurance visiting nurse, who made her headquarters there and cooperated with the League in their social work, offered to help care for the patients. That was the humble beginning of our hospital in Lawrence.

Built on the generosity of the Lawrence community

The demand increased rapidly. They finally had five beds, all in one room. But it was not enough. After the end of World War I in 1918, the Douglas County Chapter of the American Red Cross found itself in possession of “a large sum of money belonging to the local chapter and without an objective for its use,” according to Rankin, who was the chapter’s president. The city needed a hospital, but Red Cross division officials said Red Cross money could not be used for any hospital purposes. Instead, the local Red Cross Board of Directors organized the Lawrence Public Health Nursing Association, set up a first-class Health Department and endowed it with more funds than it could possibly use.

Rankin said it took some fancy financial footwork, but when the Public Health Nursing Association was firmly established, it gave the Social Service League $2,500. In 1919, the Social Service League bought a frame house at Third and Maine streets from the George Barker estate and deeded it to the city for a hospital. The indenture document includes 13 rules adopted by the Board of Trustees and approved by the City Commission. Among them:

Rule No. 1: “The said hospital shall be known as “THE LAWRENCE MEMORIAL HOSPITAL”, and shall be managed and controlled by a Board of five Trustees, to be appointed as provided in Chapter 203 of the Session Laws of Kansas of 1913.” and

Rule No. 9: “The said hospital shall be for the benefit of all inhabitants of the City of Lawrence, Kansas, and of any persons falling sick or being injured or maimed within its city limits, and none of such persons shall ever be excluded on account of race, or physical, social or financial condition ...”

In this commitment, the hospital was already ahead of its time and set the course for the next 100 years. The first Board of Trustees included Rankin as chairman; A.D. Weaver, vice chairman; William Docking, treasurer; Mrs. M.T. Sudler, secretary; and Mrs. J.H. Cohn, member.

Now that the city had a building, a public appeal was made for funds to repair and equip it as a hospital. City residents, clubs and businesses rallied to the cause, and about $10,000 was raised.

The hospital doors open

After months of hard work repairing and remodeling the building, Lawrence Memorial Hospital opened to care for patients on Jan. 17, 1921. True community need and local support built the first hospital, and that spirit prevailed the next six years as efforts were made to improve and expand the facilities.

“But it was apparent that with all of our efforts, the hospital was inadequate and not what the city was entitled to have,” Rankin said. But then a wonderful thing happened – a special person stepped up to make a lasting difference in health care in Lawrence.

Elizabeth Miller Watkins, a generous philanthropist who supported the University of Kansas and city of Lawrence in many ways, offered to give the money to build a new modern hospital building. After a trip to Chicago with Dr. M.T. Sudler to secure the best hospital architect they could find, Watkins donated $200,000 to pay construction costs for a new brick building that held 50 beds. It opened in 1929 and became the pride of the community.

The thread of Watkins’ philanthropy weaves conspicuously through LMH’s history from those earliest days to the present. Watkins again funded construction when an addition was built on the hospital in 1937, increasing capacity to 75 beds. She also built a nurses’ home, and upon her death in 1939 left the hospital an endowment which continues to generate annual income.


"LMH Health has demonstrated our founding mission by increasing access to primary care and specialty services that wouldn’t otherwise be available in our community, including world-class orthopedics, oncology, cardiology, robotic surgery and emergency care."

Russ Johnson, President & CEO


Vision and philanthropy have played prominent roles in the establishment and success of our community hospital. It started with the dream of Dr. Barnes, the groundwork of the Social Service League, the leadership of Rankin, the generosity of Watkins, and the support of countless other individuals, businesses and organizations over the past 100 years, including the LMH Health Foundation which began in 1969.

LMH Health President and CEO Russ Johnson said that through expansion and community support the original “idea” of a modest place to care for anyone in need, has grown to include a 174-bed hospital with the latest diagnostic and surgical technology, the new LMH Health West Campus outpatient facility, and 28 specialty and primary care clinics in Douglas, Jefferson and Leavenworth counties served by 388 members of the medical staff, 1,843 employees, and hundreds of community volunteers, guided by a governing Board of Trustees of nine Lawrence residents.

Johnson said, “LMH Health has demonstrated our founding mission by increasing access to primary care and specialty services that wouldn’t otherwise be available in our community, including world-class orthopedics, oncology, cardiology, robotic surgery and emergency care.” He notes that today LMH Health serves as the largest safety net provider in the community, supporting thousands of patients and more than $25 million in charitable care each year.

He continued, “Lawrence Memorial Hospital was founded upon a promise to serve all members of our community and a belief that all people deserve a place of safety, dignity and comfort in which to receive excellent medical care. I am incredibly honored to be a part of that purpose which has persevered and guided the organization for 100 years. I commend the passionate vision of those who have worked tirelessly to build a better future for all, and on behalf of all our associates and medical staff, we pledge to continue to advance efforts that reaffirm our historical commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.”

What’s Up for 2021?

While the COVID-19 pandemic may delay some public celebrations of the hospital’s centennial, look for the following throughout the year:

  • Permanent historical display at the hospital: Hospital staff and volunteers are planning to work with the Watkins Community Museum and the KU Museum Studies program to develop a permanent display commemorating key milestones, dates and events in LMH history.
  • Born at LMH? This will be an opportunity to share through social media and other channels what was happening at the hospital, city, state, country and world by profiling individuals born at LMH over the years.
  • City of Lawrence Recognition: Mayor Brad Finkeldei recognized today as the official Centennial of Lawrence Memorial Hospital at the Jan. 12 City Commission meeting.

Janice Early is the special projects leader for the LMH Health Centennial.