Throwback Thursday: Decades of change at Casper's hospital
By Kristy Bleizeffer Jan 15, 2020
Wyoming Medical Center opened on the corner of Second and Conwell streets more than 11 decades ago, and we have been serving patients and families from the same corner ever since.
While our address hasn't changed, our look sure has. At the start of our 12th decade, we dove through the Wyoming Medical Center collection at Casper College's Western History Center to see how far we've come.
Here's a decade-by-decade look at the changing face of Casper's first hospital.
Oil development at the turn of the century spurred a period of rapid growth that stretched for nearly two decades. Salt Creek oil patch in northern Natrona County was among the world’s biggest producers. Newly-built refineries and companies such as Standard Oil and Midwest Oil Company attracted workers from across the country. Those workers demanded more services.
The Casper branch of Wyoming General Hospital opened Nov. 1, 1911, at the easternmost edge of the city. It had just 35 beds and price tag of $22,500. (Wyoming Medical Center still occupies this same plot today.)
The Wyoming Legislature sold the Casper branch hospital to Natrona County for $1 on Jan. 1, 1921. In response to a nursing shortage caused by World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic, a nurses’ residence hall opened behind the main hospital in November 1922. It had nine rooms, two bathrooms and could house up to 18 students in the on-site nurse training program. This rapid growth continued through the first half of decade, and Natrona County Hospital opened its first isolation building, a two-story addition and basement in 1925. The number of beds nearly doubled to 65.
On Oct. 8, 1925, the hospital reorganized as Memorial Hospital of Natrona County. County commissioners no longer had direct control of day-to-day operations but instead appointed a Board of Trustees. The first trustees were P.J. O’Connor, W.M. Holland, M.J. Foley, H.H. Schwartz and R.S. Ellison.
1930s - 1940s
At the start of the 1930s, Casper was a much smaller city than it was at the height of the oil boom. Still, people from a widening geographical area depended on the medical services offered at Memorial Hospital of Natrona County. In 1935, the hospital treated 493 patients and delivered 205 babies. It had 17 staff physicians, 30 nurses, a pathologist, an X-ray specialist, 39 support staff and a caregiver for the guinea pigs and rabbits used for pathology and pregnancy tests. The hospital had 69 beds, two operating rooms, an isolation wing for up to 10 infectious patients and an obstetrical wing with a birthing room, 10 cribs and two incubators for premature babies.
Natrona County and the rest of the country began to emerge from the Great Depression at the end of the 1930s. Oil prices rebounded at the end of the decade, fueled primarily by the outbreak of World War II. People started to come back to Casper and, as a result, its hospital. In 1938, voters approved a $208,000 bond issue to match federal funds for a new east wing.
The hospital marked its 30th year on May 11, 1941, with a Hospital Day celebration that stretched across Casper. After America entered World War II, the hospital competed for doctors, nurses and other skilled staff while serving an influx of more than 16,000 troops and civilians who manned the Casper Army Air Base.
The baby boom began as soon as the war ended. Natrona County grew by 7,529 people during the decade, and that meant more people depending on Memorial Hospital.
The Second Street addition opened on Dec. 15, 1955. It included telephone wires to patient rooms for the first time, a third-floor surgical area, a ground-floor kitchen, air conditioning, a pneumatic tube system and piped oxygen. It also allowed for more private patient rooms, replacing general wards with several patients in open floor plans. Cost of a private room was $22 per night in 1958. By then, Memorial Hospital had 242 beds, 300 volunteers, 350 employees and a medical staff with 46 physicians and 17 dentists.
In 1964, voters approved a $1.6 million bond to replace the original 1911 hospital building with a new six-story addition running along Conwell Street. It was combined with a $1 million Hill-Burton grant that gave capital money to hospitals that agreed to provide free care to indigent people for 20 years. The new wing opened on March 16, 1967. It featured nurses stations at the center of the patient floors’, a new Labor and Delivery unit on the third floor and new Emergency Department.
The 1970s was a period of technological, medical and cultural modernization for Memorial Hospital. CEO James Carr (1953 to 1975) oversaw numerous building projects, modernized staffing, recruited new physicians and expanded the hospital’s regional reach.
1980s - 1990s
In 1986, Memorial Hospital of Natrona County reorganized again to become Wyoming Medical Center, a non-profit corporation. In the agreement, Natrona County owns hospital buildings and land, while the WMC Board of Directors oversees their operation and management. WMC “pays rent” by providing indigent care to country residents.
As the wave of physicians who came to Casper in the 1950s aged and started to retire, Wyoming Medical Center recruited specialists by highlighting the slower pace and high-quality of life in Casper. Physicians came from around the world and several pioneering physicians began outreach programs to serve smaller communities around the state.
Construction on a new east wing began in 1998. It included the “south link” connecting the south parking garage, a new ICU and an expanded Emergency Department which opened in 2000. Support hospital services -- such as information technology and human resources -- moved to the former home of the Casper-Natrona County Health Department, located on Third Street directly behind the main hospital. We now call it our Support Services Building.
When we turned 100 years old in 2011, we had been serving Casper and Natrona County from the same spot as when we first opened our doors.
In 2014, Wyoming Medical Center opened the McMurry West Tower with a new front door and true hospital lobby. The new, modern tower added 44 new private patient rooms and more space devoted to families and visitors including an interfaith chapel, gift shop, eatery, coffee shop and public waiting areas. It also houses the Jerry Behrens M.D..Orthopedic, Spine and General Surgery Center and the Ruth R. Ellbogen Family, Mother and Baby Center.
Throwback Thursday is a series celebrating Wyoming Medical Center’s long and rich history in Natrona County. Special thanks to the Casper College Western History Center which archives the vast Wyoming Medical Center collection of newspaper articles, photographs and other memorabilia, and to "Wyoming Medical Center: A Centennial History" by Rebecca A. Hunt, Ph.D.