Inova Alexandria Hospital celebrates 150th anniversary

Inova Alexandria Hospital celebrates 150th anniversary
Alexandria Hospital celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. Photo/The Board of Lady Managers

By Olivia Anderson |

Jane Hughes’ connection to Inova Alexandria Hospital is multifold. Not only is it the place both of her children were born and where her in-laws have received care on multiple occasions, but Hughes also serves as a member of the hospital’s fundraising organization, the Board of Lady Managers – a position she’s held for more than 20 years.

For Hughes, the decision to devote time to the hospital came naturally. When a friend presented her with the idea of joining the board, Hughes had already been looking for a meaningful way to spend her extra time and thought it would be the perfect fit.

Working with Inova Alexandria was one way to give back to an organization that had given so much to Hughes, as well as to help improve the community in which she lived.

“It all seemed to come together to be the perfect place for me to lend my talents,” Hughes said. “ … [Inova Alexandria] is our community hospital, and we should make sure that it’s a good community hospital because if something, God forbid, should happen to us, any of us goes there and we want to have exceptional care in our community.”

Hughes isn’t alone in her support for Inova Alexandria. This year marks the hospital’s 150th anniversary, which the City of Alexandria is celebrating with an exhibit in partnership with the Alexandria History Museum at the Lyceum called “Alexandria Hospital: Women Mobilize the Community.” The exhibit will examine the prominent role women played in founding the hospital and include rare artifacts, photos and oral history interviews with doctors, nurses and volunteers involved with the hospital.

Throughout the years Inova Alexandria has accumulated a hefty list of firsts, including the title of the first 24/7 emergency department in the country. It’s also the first hospital in Northern Virginia to have a moveable X-ray table, lung chamber and provide a full-body CAT scan unit.

Last year, Inova Alexandria performed 7,991 total surgeries and 3,113 deliveries, accepted 12,790 inpatient admissions and amassed 80,967 ER visits.

Over the course of its century-plus-spanning history, Inova Alexandria evolved from a group of women establishing a small infirmary to a full-fledged hospital. In the next few years, that hospital will move to the old Landmark Mall site to accommodate its growing demand.

The road hasn’t always been simple; from rocky early beginnings to some turmoil surrounding its upcoming move, the hospital has dealt with its fair share of obstacles. Yet throughout all the changes, the mission has remained the same: to serve the community and provide quality healthcare.

Filling the gap

In December 1872, an Alexandria resident named Julia Johns recognized a need in the community for a medical facility following the arrival of a sailor with typhoid fever. There was nowhere in the city to quarantine those with the disease, causing widespread community concern about a potential epidemic. So Johns and a group of local women took matters into their own hands.

“It was this dedicated band of women, led by Julia Johns, who saw a need in the community,” Mary Ryan, current president of the Board of Lady Managers, said. “The healthcare needs of the community were not being met, and that’s why they took the initiative of founding this.”

The women in the group, who together called themselves the Board of Lady Managers, met to “consider a formation of a society to establish and control a hospital for the sick,” according to the board’s website. The group was subsequently granted a charter from the Commonwealth of Virginia on Dec. 23, 1872, and thus, the hospital – then known as the Alexandria Infirmary – was born.

Managed by the Board of Lady Managers, the infirmary opened in March 1873 at Duke and South Fairfax Streets in a townhome owned by Johns’ father, an Episcopal bishop. This would be the first of six locations.

“It was shaky, to be honest with you, because they didn’t have a lot of money and they didn’t have a lot of support [at first],” Ryan said. “But they did have the support of some local physicians who contributed their time. They moved from one site to another until they finally established themselves at the Duke Street location of the Alexandria Hospital.”

After the first year of service, the board learned that the 54 treated patients were not enough to meet expenses and consequently the infirmary almost closed. Johns, however, called on community members to donate items such as food, medicine, sheets and blankets.

Alexandria Infirmary nurses from the 1800s.

Due to immense community support, the infirmary stuck around. Then, it flourished. Nearly 20 years after opening, in 1894, the Board of Lady Managers started the first nursing school in Northern Virginia, which would graduate approximately 900 students until it closed in 1987.

Soon after the school opened, the board started the first outpatient care facility and several years after that, formally changed its name to Alexandria Hospital.

The Board of Lady Managers administered and operated the hospital’s day-to-day operations for 69 years, before relinquishing direct control to a board of directors. The board held director positions until the hospital merged with Inova Health System in 1997.

Today, the Board of Lady Managers is still actively involved with the hospital, serving as one of its primary fundraising organizations. Hughes emphasized that the board encourages each member to bring their specific expertise and skill set to the table.

“Everyone participates in fundraising, everyone does what they’re good at. It could be going out and sourcing donations, it could be participating just by attending and inviting a number of guests,” Hughes said. “It’s a very active fundraising group; everybody’s on a committee and contributes with their best talent.”

Recently, the board has been supporting technology advancement in the hospital for items like neurosurgical microscopes, an O-arm surgical imaging system, a simulation lab for incoming nursing students, and conversions of hospital rooms to negative pressure rooms for COVID-19 patients.

“Even though they relinquished control, they were still involved,” Ryan said. “The board continued as an auxiliary and fundraising arm, which is our mission and primary function today – and what our organization has been doing back from the beginning.”

Sow and reap

In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the hospital’s founding, on June 9 the current Board of Lady Managers planted a tree outside the Virginia Theological Seminary cemetery, where Johns is buried. The purpose, Ryan said, was to “honor Johns and her vision and contribution to the City of Alexandria.”

The hospital also recently formed the Julia Johns Society, which consists of female care providers including nurse practitioners and physician assistants.

The city is celebrating the anniversary in other ways as well. The Alexandria History Museum at the Lyceum is set to open its “Women Mobilize the Community” exhibit in October, which will tell the story of the significant role women played in founding and administering Alexandria Hospital. Through artifacts and oral history interviews, the exhibit will chronicle the timeline of the Board of Lady Managers, from the hospital’s inception to the transfer of control.

According to Kris Lloyd, the exhibit curator, its direction became clear after looking into the hospital’s history and learning just how integral a function women had in its evolution.

Julia Johns and a team of women opened Alexandria’s first permanent hospital in 1872. Photo/The Board of Lady Managers

“As we started to do some research about the history of the hospital, we were really struck by how it was not only founded by women, but they have played a key role in its administration, patient care and very notably, its support ever since it was founded,” Lloyd said. “ … As the title conveys, it’s really about the women that were involved and continued to sustain the hospital.”

The exhibit will include three main sections, the first of which will explore the founding of the facilities of the hospital. The second section will discuss patient care, including the nursing school, which Lloyd deemed particularly meaningful because of the lack of opportunities for women during that time period. Finally, the third section will focus on the community support that lifted up the hospital in its fledgling stages and beyond.

Several community events that Alexandria Hospital holds today were around more than a century ago. For instance, the hospital’s annual Thanksgiving food drive dates back to the early 1900s. A portion of the exhibit will highlight some of the early donations it received in 1917, such as the Colored Citizens Association’s $500 donation to support wards for African American women and men, the National Needlework League’s donation of 43 garments and the Alexandria Gazette’s gift of a yearly subscription to the newspaper.

Additionally, the King’s Daughters Circle of Del Ray donated 15 cans of vegetables, two quarts of beans and seven jars of jelly to the hospital. 

The reason the hospital prevailed is the same reason the Alexandria History Museum is dedicating an entire exhibit to it this year: community support. 

“We’re a community history museum, and the hospital was and is very much a community-based enterprise,” Lloyd said.

A growing need

The longer Alexandria Hospital remained in the city, the larger it grew. By 1997, the year it merged with Inova Health System, the hospital’s emergency room was one of the busiest in Northern Virginia, treating about 50,000 patients per year.

To fit a rising need, Inova Alexandria announced in 2020 that it would be moving from its current location at 4320 Seminary Rd. to the former Landmark Mall site, located between Duke and Van Dorn Street off Interstate 395.

Inova Alexandria is investing $1 billion in the new medical campus, which will feature a larger emergency room, cancer center and private patient rooms. The mixed-use space will also include residential, retail and commercial offerings.

Although the announcement was widely embraced, documents emerged last year revealing an old agreement between the hospital and the Seminary Hill Association that restricted density at its current Seminary Road site.

Specifically, the private agreement supported zoning exchanges in exchange for the hospital’s promise to not seek rezoning onsite for 25 years. But last year, Inova Alexandria submitted a zoning request to City Council to change the property’s land use designation from Institutional to RA, which would permit high-density units at the site.

Council approved the re-zoning request in June 2021, which SHA vocally opposed – not because of the hospital’s transition to the Landmark Mall site, but because of the possibility of high-density units that comes with the rezoning.

“We don’t want to be painted by the city as standing in the way of first-class healthcare for everybody in Alexandria,” SHA President Carter Flemming told the Times last year. “That was not our goal; what our goal is is to protect the character of the neighborhood we live in, to keep the community in the heart of a residential area to keep it residential in terms of not building high-rise apartments there.”

Still, Inova Alexandria’s transition is well on its way and most are on board with the change. Hughes expressed support for the new location, calling it a longtime coming.

In the coming years, Inova Alexandria Hospital will move from its current location on Seminary Road to the former Landmark Mall site.

“It’s so wonderful that they’re going to move to the new location because you want to have a dignified and uplifting working environment as well as an exceptional environment for patients,” Hughes said.

Rina Bansal, the hospital’s president, said that Inova Alexandria’s new location is the next step in the continued journey and commitment to providing world-class healthcare. Bansal, who came from Fairfax Hospital, recalled feeling struck by the hospital’s simultaneous innovation and community draw when she first started.

“It’s always been this hospital that’s a community hospital, but extremely innovative and forward-thinking,” Bansal said. “Since I’ve been here and probably the 10 years preceding, probably what’s been challenging for us is our physical infrastructure, because it is an aging facility. Although it’s highly functional and perfectly fine, it keeps us from being that hospital that is state-of-the-art.”

She noted that the new facility will be both patient-centered and team member-centered in its design, rather than built solely with physicians in mind. It will also focus on wellness, including ample green space and open areas for team members to find respite in nature throughout the day. It’s currently in the design phase, with two architecture firms drawing mock-ups for team members to review and provide feedback. Construction is expected to begin next year, and the new hospital is expected to open in 2028.

These large-scale changes will certainly enhance Inova Alexandria’s ability to care for its patients, and Bansal emphasized that the hospital’s rich, storied history is the reason they are achievable.

“It’s a moment of pride for us,” Bansal said. “Us having this amazing history and celebrating 150 years really does engender that sense of pride, that sense of connectivity to the community, that sense of purpose.”

For Hughes, Inova Alexandria’s importance runs deeper than just providing basic medical care.

“Inova has been an exceptional community hospital and it’s been a part of so many people’s lives,” Hughes said. “[Through] good times and bad times, people know they can count on their community hospital, and that’s a big deal. It’s clearly stood the test of time.”