What started with a dollar and a commitment to serving the Rockford community has evolved into a modern, innovative institution. Discover how this health system is reflecting on a century of service.
SwedishAmerican Health System observed its 100th anniversary June 6, and looking at the expansive hospital campus today, it’s hard to believe that this entity, integral to the region’s health and well-being, began with only a vision and a dollar.
SwedishAmerican Health System was created on March 23, 1911, when mathematician O.F. Nilson wrote a letter to Carl Hjalmar Lundquist, editor of Rockford’s Swedish newspaper, urging the construction of a Swedish hospital. Half joking, he challenged every Swedish resident to contribute $1 per year toward a new hospital, and he enclosed $1 as a token of his sincerity, according to hospital archives. As a result, Lundquist called a meeting of Rockford’s Swedish ministers to discuss the matter. He also used Nilson’s donation to open a savings account for the hospital at the Swedish-American Bank.
On June 6, 1911, the Swedish American Hospital Association received its charter of incorporation from the Illinois Secretary of State. Letters went out, in Swedish and English, asking for financial support, and many fundraising picnics, bazaars and concerts followed. One year later, more than $4,000 in cash and $8,000 in pledges had been raised. After much deliberation, a three-acre site was purchased on Charles Street for $11,500. On July 17, 1918, the 55-bed SwedishAmerican Hospital was completed, at a cost of $175,000.
“I have an interesting family connection to SwedishAmerican, that makes my role as the organization’s archivist especially meaningful,” says Paul Greenland, historian and manager of marketing and public information. “A century ago, my great-grandfather, Johan Alf Carlson, worked as a membership aide to raise funds for the construction of SwedishAmerican Hospital. His son, Ray Carlson, was a life member of the Swedish AmericanHospital Association. Like all four of my children, I was born at SwedishAmerican Hospital, and I served the organization as a volunteer while attending East High School.”
The fledgling hospital had its capabilities put to the test almost immediately, during one of the most significant public health challenges in U.S. history: the Great Pandemic, which impacted the nation in three waves, from fall 1918 through spring 1919.
When it hit Rockford in September 1918, the pandemic was first described as an epidemic of colds before being identified as Spanish influenza. The Rockford Health Department reported more than 8,000 cases on Sept. 19. Within a few weeks, 234 people had died. In an effort to prevent the influenza from spreading, churches, schools, theaters and other public places closed. Ultimately, about 323 civilians and 1,400 soldiers at Camp Grant, near Rockford, lost their lives.
According to SwedishAmerican archives, Mrs. John S. Bowman recalled that “the soldiers were dying by the dozens without the modern help of antibiotics and disposable hypodermic needles. Patients were treated mostly for pneumonia, by placing gauze and cotton soaked in camphor oil on their chests.”
SwedishAmerican again rose to meet a major health challenge during the polio epidemic of the 1950s and ’60s. Retired family physician and SwedishAmerican administrator Dr. Henry C. Anderson served as chairman of the Victory Over Polio drive during the 1960s. The disease had a tremendous impact on Rockford, because people greatly feared becoming paralyzed and dying. When immunizations became available, there was an overwhelming demand for them.
“According to Dr. Anderson, at the first mass inoculation, on Feb. 10, 1963, 100,309 people were immunized in 38 clinics citywide in just one day,” says Greenland. “Although it required repeated immunizations to administer the three different types of polio vaccine, there was excellent compliance to this citywide effort led by the Winnebago County Medical Society.”
And when the Midwest’s treacherous weather created yet another medical crisis, SwedishAmerican’s committed staff members were ready to help.
On April 21, 1967, 10 tornadoes touched down in northeast Illinois, injuring more than 1,000 people, killing 58 and causing roughly $500 million in damage. One of the tornadoes touched ground two miles southeast of Cherry Valley, Ill. After destroying 300 new cars at the Chrysler plant, it moved northeast, wreaking havoc on the southeast side of Belvidere.
In a report about the disaster, National Weather Service Warning Coordination Meteorologist Jim Allsopp wrote that the most horrific aspect “was the mayhem at Belvidere High School. Buses had already picked up elementary school children and were loading high school students when the tornado struck. Twelve buses rolled over. Students were flung like leaves into a muddy field.” Thirteen of the 24 fatalities occurred at the high school.
On that fateful day, says Greenland, SwedishAmerican Hospital employees exhibited unparalleled team spirit, as they cared for the wounded and displaced. Nursing students, who were preparing to leave for the weekend, stayed on to assist hospital staff.
It wasn’t the first time that medical students were put into action unexpectedly. SwedishAmerican Hospital founded its training school in September 1919, during the Spanish influenza pandemic. The school’s first five students had a sleeping room in the hospital and were soon involved in caring for victims.
In addition to attending classes, hours of duty were long and strenuous for the students. The school proved to be a vital source of much-needed help to the hospital, and was strongly influenced by the moral strength of longtime director Ruba Goodsell.
Although SwedishAmerican was not officially affiliated with any religion, there was a strong Christian influence at the school. This was partially Goodsell’s doing, since she consistently maintained that a nurse should be a Christian to truly fulfill the obligations of her high calling, explains Greenland. Goodsell led the nursing school for more than 30 years, retiring in 1968. She oversaw the instruction of nearly 1,000 students, beginning as the sole instructor to a class of 36 in 1938, and supervising 120 under a 14-faculty team by the time she retired.
In September 1974, the school admitted its 55th and final class, graduating 1,300 students in all.
SwedishAmerican’s progress through 10 decades has been profoundly influenced, not only by medical advances, growth and economic fluctuations, but also by dynamic people. One was Pehr A. Peterson, a Swedish immigrant who worked as a farmhand in the late 1850s, before turning his talents and intellect to manufacturing. Named president of SwedishAmerican’s board of trustees in July 1918, Peterson’s short but highly influential tenure guided the hospital through the pandemic and into the future. By the time he resigned the position in June 1919, he had become known as SwedishAmerican’s “grand old man.”
“Earlier this year, I began writing It Began with a Dollar, a 200-page book on our history,” says Greenland. “For me, the experience was nothing less than transformational. During my career, I’ve written several books, including an authorized history of the National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks. This project has been especially exhilarating because, for the first time, I’ve written a history of which I am a part.”
Greenland’s project involved conducting interviews with many retired doctors, nurses and employees, and searching through thousands of old photographs and documents.
“I could talk at length about the many expansion efforts that have occurred at the hospital throughout the years,” Greenland says. “While those are important, it’s the people of SwedishAmerican who really bring the organization’s history to life. Between the covers of our new history book, you’ll read stories about struggles that have been endured and contributions that have been made by countless individuals.”
SwedishAmerican tells its centennial story in other ways, too. The newly-developed Heritage Center offers visitors fascinating exhibits that bring the organization’s past to life.
“We’re approaching 100 percent funding for the $1 million needed to create the center,” says SwedishAmerican Foundation Executive Vice President and CEO John Mecklenburg. “All three Rockford hospitals began in the downtown area. While OSF Saint Anthony moved east and Rockford Hospital west with the population growth, SwedishAmerican stayed right here where we began. This is our neighborhood. We plan to be here another 100 years.”
Mecklenburg says the Heritage Center is dedicated to SwedishAmerican’s proud history of medical advancements from 1918 to 2011. It’s located on the hospital’s first floor, off Charles Street, in the area that once housed its administrative offices and lobby.
“The Heritage Center is basically where the gift shop once was,” Mecklenburg says. “It looks out into the Healing Garden, is close to the chapel and Heart Hospital and is part of the original 1963 tower core.”
In addition to recollections from staff and administrators, in their own words, the center will exhibit artifacts from various periods, such as an iron lung from the era of the polio epidemic.
“These interpretive displays will help the next generations gain an appreciation of our past and give insight into our future,” Mecklenburg explains. “All ongoing expenses will be covered by donations. The foundation has many private donors who support the Heritage Center. And I believe we will also benefit from estate gifts to ensure the Heritage Center continues on.”
The center’s advisory committee, comprised of Dr. Henry C. and Dorothy Anderson, along with Mecklenburg and his wife, Kathy, visited many other facilities prior to designing SwedishAmerican’s center.
“We learned what to do and what not to do,” Mecklenburg says. “At the University of Iowa, for example, we were told it’s best to keep the funding separate from the operating costs. We gathered a lot of good, practical information from some outstanding sites, including the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and more in Chicago. We saw examples of what to avoid, as well.”
During his 20 years of leadership at the foundation, Mecklenburg has been at the forefront of SwedishAmerican’s impact upon its immediate neighborhood.
“We’re so much more than a hospital,” says Mecklenburg. “It’s people who have made the difference, a unique group of people unlike any other place and time.”
Former president and CEO Dr. Robert B. Klint has said that, beyond providing health care to the sick, SwedishAmerican’s vision is to accept responsibility for building a healthier population and community. A prime example has been the transformation of the area surrounding the hospital campus. The Foundation has placed the American dream of home ownership within reach for countless residents, resulting in the development of stable, owner-occupied neighborhoods.
From 2000 to 2011, the SwedishAmerican Foundation sponsored the construction of 32 new homes; renovated or improved more than 100 existing properties; and renovated a two-building, 24-unit neighborhood apartment complex. The Foundation’s initiatives have expanded beyond the immediate hospital campus, impacting an 81-block area.
Since 2001, SwedishAmerican has been led by President and CEO Dr. Bill Gorski, who started practicing medicine in 1980 with Five Points Family Medicine Group.
“At that time, our clinic included Drs. Henry Anderson, George Green and Harold Krueger,” says Gorski. “They were wonderful colleagues from whom I learned many valuable lessons, not only of medicine, but life. I was privileged to practice for 20 years, all at Swedes, with an untold number of dedicated and talented physicians.”
Gorski’s long association with SwedishAmerican gives him a genuine appreciation for its past, and an educated perspective on what will make it successful in the future.
“As I look back on my 34 years here, I see buildings being built, programs being created and expanded, and strategies being executed,” he says. “But that’s all in the background. In the foreground, I see the faces of the dedicated people who’ve made this all happen.
“I’m privileged and honored to work with an outstanding board, leadership team and 3,200 fellow employees who sustain and nurture our heritage and culture, and live out our mission every day. It’s the essence of what has brought us to this point in our first 100 years, and it’s what will empower us for the next 100 years.” ❚