Honoring female founders

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

By Kassidy McDonald kmcdonald@alextimes.com

The “Alexandria Hospital: Women Mobilize the Community” exhibit opened Oct. 27 at the Lyceum. The exhibit was created to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Inova Alexandria Hospital, formerly the Alexandria Infirmary, and the women who made the healthcare facility into a reality.

A woman named Julia Johns organized a group in 1872 to start the first infirmary in Alexandria. She was the daughter of the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. Due to the hard work and dedication of Johns and her group, later referred to as the Board of Lady Managers, they opened the city’s first infirmary in March 1873.

Then in 1917, the city’s first purpose-built hospital facility was built on the 700 block of
Duke Street. The hospital facility was made possible by donations within the city that funded hospital wards and operating rooms. The new exhibit in the Lyceum pays homage to this piece of Alexandria’s history.

According to the city, women played such an integral part of healthcare in Alexandria that Inova became one of Alexandria’s most “community-based enterprises.” The exhibit highlights the like-minded women who worked extremely hard to establish and sustain the hospital.

“This exhibit highlights the role of women’s activism in operating the hospital and marshaling the support of organizations such as the Colored Citizen’s Association, Hospital Auxiliary Board, The Twig Junior Auxiliary, business, churches and schools so it would thrive,” a news release from the city reads.

Visitors will learn about the history behind Julia Johns, the infirmary and now what is known as Inova Alexandria Hospital. They will view images, see old newspaper clippings, view a Minute Book from the 1900s from the Board of Lady Managers and even see a Dr. Henry M. Ladrey’s medical bag and stethoscope from the 1960s.

Dr. Ladrey graduated from Howard School of Medicine in 1932 and was an important part of the hospital’s history. Not only are his stethoscope and bag on display in the exhibit, but he was also one of five African American doctors granted courtesy privileges. According to the Alexandria History Museum, “courtesy privileges meant physicians could not only refer their patients to Alexandria Hospital – but they could also treat their patients while they were in the hospital.”

Additional interesting items on display include Dr. Samuel B. Moore’s Sphygmomanometer, a tool used to measure blood pressure; a Candy Striper Uniform from 1985; programs from Board of Lady Managers fundraising events; and a map of hospital locations.

“I went to the opening of the exhibit, and I think that it was very well organized. The exhibit was wonderful, we had time to walk through … it is one room with panels on the wall and also three-dimensional displays of objects,” Mary Ryan, a former president of the Board of Lady Managers, said. “It’s not a large space but there is a lot of information packed in there.”

Kristin Lloyd, curator for the City of Alexandria, said that the response of the new exhibit has been extremely positive, and visitors have seemed to appreciate all of the history that the exhibit highlights.

“Like any project, exhibition development has its ups and downs, but there weren’t really any obstacles in creating the exhibit. We did have to adapt because of the [COVID-19] pandemic situation – such as holding electronic meetings with staff and stakeholders rather than in-person gatherings, and it was necessary to record many oral histories via Zoom,” Lloyd said in a statement.

Visitors to the exhibit will be immersed into a world of women’s history and learn about these women who were able to change Alexandria for the better.

Johns, who was the driving force behind the hospital and the founder of the Board of Lady Managers, was honored in another way this summer by the current board. They held a tree planting ceremony in her honor by planting a tree right outside her gravesite at the Theological Seminary. Today, the Board of Lady Managers continues to fundraise and raise money for the hospital to provide significant improvements to their facilities.

Johns was a Christian and valued service to others as a part of her religious beliefs. She took up this servitude after her father, John Johns. He became Assistant Bishop of Virginia in 1842 and served as president of the Virginia Theological Seminary’s Board of Trustees after the Civil War until he died in 1876, according to the Alexandria History Museum at the Lyceum.

The infirmary opened March 1, 1873 on the corner of Duke and Fairfax, which was the former residence of Dr. Francis Murphy, according to the Alexandria History Museum at the Lyceum. Johns and the Board of Lady Managers were responsible for overseeing the staff, which at the time included three consulting physicians, a matron, a cook and a nurse.

“A year after opening, inadequate income forced the Infirmary to move to smaller quarters. The Governing Trustees were on the verge of closing until Julia Johns gave an emotional appeal for the hospital to remain open at any cost – and that she was fully willing to take the cost of running the hospital upon herself,” a script from the Alexandria History Museum at the Lyceum reads. “With her leadership the Infirmary continued.”

The hospital’s creation is also important because it allowed people to no longer have to travel far for hospital care. Before the Board of Lady Managers built a facility, residents of Alexandria had to travel to Richmond or Washington for medical care. Due to their group efforts, people could receive life-changing care in Alexandria.

“People were having to travel to Richmond or other cities to receive medical care and therefore there was a need … It was really interesting that it was a group of women at this time in history that actually got the ball rolling,” Ryan said.

The Women Mobilize the Community exhibit was made possible by donations from Inova Health System, The Twig – the Junior Auxiliary of Alexandria Hospital – and individual donors who wanted to commemorate a piece of Alexandria and women’s history.

The exhibit will be open to the public until Oct. 29, 2023. The museum is free to residents of Alexandria. It is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday.