In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the citizens of Franklin County took decisive steps to have a hospital built in Louisburg. This effort was part of a statewide effort that transformed health care in North Carolina.
According to historian Hugh T. Lefler (North Carolina: The History of a Southern State, Third ed., 1973), the movement for better health care grew out of a report by a “committee of distinguished physicians” that Governor J. Melville Broughton brought to the attention of the University of North Carolina’s board of trustees early in 1944. The report stated that North Carolina, the eleventh most populous state, ranked forty-second in the number of hospital beds and forty-fifth in the number of doctors per 1,000 residents. The committee made several recommendations to rectify this situation.
The trustees approved these recommendations, and Governor Broughton, who believed that “no person in North Carolina [should] lack hospital care or medical treatment by reason of poverty or low income,” soon appointed a State Hospital and Medical Care Commission. The commission studied the status of health care for eight months and then recommended that North Carolina needed additional doctors and hospitals as well as better access to health insurance so that people could “insure themselves against expensive illness, expensive treatment by specialists, and extended hospitalization.” A Five Year Hospital Plan begun in 1947 resulted in the investment of $68 million in state, local, and federal (Hill-Burton Act) funds toward the construction of 127 hospitals, health centers, and clinics.
Representatives of the North Carolina Medical Care Commission in early August 1947 made a presentation about the plan at a public meeting held at the Franklin County Courthouse. They explained how the county could take advantage of state and federal funds and recommended that a fifty-bed hospital be built on a site of at least three acres. Following this meeting, the Franklin County Commissioners appointed a large group of citizens from throughout the county as the Franklin County Hospital Boosters Committee. Later in August, the group met and elected E. C. Bulluck as chairman, C. L. McGhee as vice-chairman, and Walter Fuller as secretary-treasurer. This body appointed another committee to determine the cost of the project and Franklin County’s likely share of it. Committees for each township were formed to encourage citizens to back the hospital.
Public support quickly coalesced. Lions clubs in Franklinton and Youngsville endorsed the project. The Franklin Times added an entreaty, “Let’s Have a Hospital,” adjacent to its masthead. On September 15, 1947, the Franklin County Commissioners passed resolutions authorizing the issuance of bonds in the amount of $150,000 to cover Franklin County’s portion of the cost of the hospital. They set November 4 as the date for the bond referendum. Voters approved the issue.
The commissioners established an account for the Franklin County Memorial Hospital Fund and, in August 1948, paid James P. Lumpkin and Irene H. Dickens $12,656 for a piece of property on North Main Street in Louisburg. The land had been owned by former Superior Court Judge Charles Mather Cooke.
In March 1949, representatives of the Medical Care Commission, the hospital board, and the County Commissioners met to open bids for construction of Franklin County Memorial Hospital, which had been designed by architect Frank W. Benton of Wilson. Muirhead Construction Company of Durham won the general contract for the project, which was expected to cost $582,656.
A large crowd assembled on the property on April 20 for the ceremonial groundbreaking. State Senator Hamilton Hobgood served as master of ceremonies and Gaither M. Beam gave the principal address. Among those turning the first spades of dirt was Dr. James B. Wheless, chairman of the hospital’s board of trustees. Some 2,500 people attended the official opening of the hospital, which was dedicated to Franklin County’s war dead, on February 11, 1951. Officials announced that the building would receive patients the following week.
The doors were opened on February 16. The first patient was Mrs. J. C. Mullen, whose boy was delivered by Dr. Thomas O. Wheless. The second patient, Senator Hobgood, had contracted influenza. The Franklin Times reported that The Rev. Edward Hill Davis, the elderly author of Historical Sketches of Franklin County, the third patient, “has the honor and satisfaction of knowing that he had improved while at the Raleigh hospital, sufficient to return home and enter his own hospital on Sunday. His many friends here are delighted that he has improved sufficient to be at home with his own people.”
Published in The Franklin Times on October 29, 2015.
Photo credit: Franklin Memorial Hospital shortly after its construction. Hospital Construction Section: Hospital Photographs, Medical Care Commission Record Group, State Archives of North Carolina (courtesy of Drucilla H. York).
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He wishes to acknowledge use of information in Franklin County, 1779-1979, by T. H. Pearce.