LeBaron: When Memorial Hospital changed health care in Sonoma County

  • Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, undated photo, circa 1950.

    Used by Gaye Lebaron in Santa Rosa: A 20th Century Town, pg. 319. (Credit: Press Democrat Collection)

Some people say "interesting" is an adjective you use when you don't know what else to say.

As in: "The medical profession is certainly interesting these days."

It was not the adjective we would have applied to the medical community in Sonoma County 60 years ago. Growing, expanding, burgeoning, blossoming, mushrooming. Any of the above would work instead.

Now, on the cusp of another sea change in medical care here and everywhere else, it may be a good time to remember the state of medicine in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County in the 1950s. This was called to mind last month when Dr. Vernon Lightfoot's obituary appeared in these pages. Dr. Lightfoot, who died at 93, was a respected figure in Santa Rosa's medical history, one of the first ophthalmologists in the area.

There was a phrase in the short biography written by his son, David, which caught my eye. It was the reason for his father's 1952 decision to spend four years of practice in Logan, Utah.

His colleague from the residency program at the University of California medical school, Dr. Ward Wick, had urged him to join him here, but Dr. Lightfoot felt "Santa Rosa was too small for another ophthalmologist."

Four years later, he had no such fears. He became the third such specialist in town, joining Wick and Dr. Sam Aiken.

Dr. Lightfoot's story is just one that illustrates the growth of a new kind of medicine in the age of penicillin, antibiotics and surgical techniques learned in World War II. This era arrived in Santa Rosa with a flourish in 1950 with the opening of Memorial Hospital. The arrival of young, eager specialists — many of them war veterans — who prospered, some mightily, turned Santa Rosa into the regional health center for the coastal area between Marin County and the Oregon border, a distinction it holds to this day.

Until Memorial, there was the just the county hospital, which was for indigent patients only; and General Hospital, a 1918 conversion of World War I barracks on A Street, and the even older, even less-modern Tanner Hospital, a former two-story house on Fifth and King streets that the late Dr. Frank Norman, who kept the town's medical history, liked to characterize with anecdotes about its idiosyncrasies like how the lights often went out in the operating room when someone pushed the elevator button. Tanner Hospital, Dr. Norman was always pleased to add, closed on the day Memorial opened.

The construction of Memorial Hospital was a priority issue for postwar Santa Rosa and a triumph for community activism. Private money was raised in all corners of the town. One record-breaking event — a dinner at the Topaz Room with actor Don Ameche as the headliner — brought a staggering $50,000, more than had ever been pledged for anything in the county.

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