Join Our Mailing List

Jews in America:
Denver Jewry Builds a Hospital


Jews in America: Table of Contents | Virtual History Tour | National Population

Print Friendly and PDF

The arrival of masses of Eastern European Jewish immigrants during the 1880s and beyond corresponded with a rapid increase in the number of tuberculosis cases in the United States. Known as the "white plague," physicians at the time knew of only one treatment for TB: clean air and sunshine. Denver, with its mountain air and crisp climate, became a preferred destination for infected Jewish immigrants from places such as New York’s Lower East Side. Yet, Denver was ill prepared for the arrival of these poor Jews and their families.

It was the vision of Frances Wisebart Jacobs that made Denver a center for the organized treatment of tuberculosis in the United States. The daughter of immigrants from Bavaria, Frances Wisebart was born in Harrodsburg, Kentucky in 1843. At age 20, she married Abraham Jacobs and the couple moved to Colorado. In 1872, Jacobs launched her first foray into organized Jewish charitable relief by forming the Denver Hebrew Ladies’ Relief Society, which assisted Denver’s small population of needy Jewish residents.

According to historian Marjorie Hornbein, writing in the American Jewish Historical Society’s Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Jacobs "realized that the problems of poverty, sickness, malnutrition and unsanitary living conditions were not limited to the Jewish community." In 1874, she helped organize the Denver Ladies’ Relief Society and, in 1887, she joined with the city’s Congregational minister and the Catholic archdiocese to form the Charity Organization Society, forerunner of Denver’s community chest. Her efforts would later earn her the name, "Denver’s mother of charities."

Jacobs left her most enduring mark in the area of tuberculosis relief. According to Hornbein, hundreds of TB victims from the industrial Northeast, Jewish and non-Jewish, who made their way to Denver in search of a cure found that "no facilities existed to give them treatment or even shelter." Even worse, "Most of the Denver community ignored those who roamed the city coughing or hemorrhaging." But not Jacobs. Unafraid to touch the ill, she would help them when they fell on the street, get them to a physician and pay for treatment. However, as there was no place for tubercular individuals to stay during treatment, many were transported to the local jail.

Jacobs insisted that the Denver community face the reality that the city was attracting needy tuberculosis victims. According to a Denver journalist at the time, "Everyone put down his pencil to hear her tell of the crucial need for a hospital. Although she could move any hardboiled editor, the response was always the same – ‘What you say is true, but this is the Queen City of the Plains, and we can’t blacken the name of the city’" by making it a TB refuge.

Jacobs found an ally in the newly appointed rabbi of Denver’s Temple Emanu-el, William S. Friedman. In 1889, Friedman argued from his pulpit in favor of Jacobs’s plan to build a Jewish-sponsored tuberculosis hospital. In April of 1890, Denver’s Jewish Hospital Association was incorporated and, in October, a hospital cornerstone was laid. A month later, Frances Jacobs contracted pneumonia while visiting among the city’s poor. In early November, she died at the age of 49. The hospital’s trustees voted to name the hospital for her, and construction was completed in 1893.

A precipitous drop in silver prices that year caused a depression in the western mining states, and the Frances Jacobs Hospital stood empty for lack of operating funds. In 1895, Louis Anfenger of Denver, the district president of national B’nai B’rith, asked that organization to adopt the Denver tuberculosis hospital as a national project. According to Hornbein, "In 1899 the B’nai B’rith decided that the hospital in Denver was the responsibility of all American Jews and that the [Denver] lodge would supervise it." On December 10, 1899, six years after Frances Jacobs’s death, the hospital opened its doors.

While a project of B’nai B’rith and the Denver Jewish community, the renamed National Jewish Hospital was non-denominational. Its first patient was a Swedish woman from Minnesota. To reflect its openness to the impoverished of every background, the hospital adopted the motto, "None may enter who can pay, and none can pay who enter."

Another aspect of the hospital’s philosophy was more controversial. The trustees limited admissions to those who had incipient (early stage), rather than advanced, cases of TB. However, a large number of Orthodox Jews with advanced cases traveled to Denver in search of a cure. The National Hospital would not admit them. Further, the National Hospital, organized primarily by reform German Jews, did not have a kosher kitchen. The Orthodox would not eat there even when admitted.

After a debate in which some members of the city’s German Jewish elite argued that Denver must not be swamped with "dying consumptives," Dr. Charles Spivak, a physician sympathetic to the Eastern European faction, organized the Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society, which built a new hospital for those in advanced stages of the disease. The new hospital served kosher food.

Today, tuberculosis is no longer epidemic – in part because of research done at the National Jewish Hospital. The "National" remains, however, after several evolutionary transformations, one of America’s great research hospitals for respiratory diseases.

In Colorado’s state capitol, there are 16 stained glass windows depicting important state pioneers. The only woman represented there is Frances Wisebart Jacobs.

Sources: American Jewish Historical Society

Back to Top