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100 years of Samuel Merritt

From: Annalee Allen, Oakland Tribune
Published:

Friends, associates, alumni, and students and faculty of Samuel Merritt College are gathering Jan. 26 for a Founder's Day event commemorating a proud century of medical instruction.

Elizabeth Valente of the college media office is especially interested in reaching out to all those formerly associated with Samuel Merritt, whether student, staff member or instructor, to get back in touch. "Our Founder's Day event kicks off a year of activities we are quite excited about," she said, "and we don't want anyone to miss out."

The event starts at 5 p.m. in the Health Education Center — Fontaine Auditorium at 400 Hawthorne Ave.

"Our featured guest speaker will be the Honorable Susan Adams, Ph.D., R.N., Marin County Supervisor, District 1, whose address will be 'Transforming Lives, Transforming Communities,'" Valente said. "Those interested in attending may RSVP to www.samuelmerritt.edu/centennial or by calling 510-869-8628.

"We will be making a very special announcement at the Founder's Day event," she added. In addition to its original function as a school for nurses, the 100-year-old institution offers degrees for such specialties as physician assistant, physical therapist, occupational therapist and podiatric medicine specialist. A School of Pharmacy is scheduled to begin accepting applicants in Fall 2010.

Over the past six years, the college has opened three remote sites in Northern California: Sacramento, San Francisco and San Mateo. During the past decade, total student enrollment has climbed from 670 to 1,278; there are 73 faculty members.

We are proud to state that our student body represents all ages, ethnicities and geographical regions, Valente said. According to the history files, slightly more than a century ago an Oakland widow, Catharine Garcelon, dutifully carried out her younger brother's final wishes by directing his $2 million estate toward the establishment of a new community hospital. Garcelon's brother was none other than Samuel P. Merritt, a physician, shipmaster, merchant, architect, civic planner and politician who died in 1890 at age 68. Following his death, a trust was established to build "the most modern hospital facility, staffed by competent personnel to give the best possible care to both paying patients, and, by endowments, to care for those worthy and valuable citizens ineligible for tax supported services."

Brother and sister's roots can be traced to Portland, Maine. Catharine was born in 1814, older brother Isaac, a ship's captain, was born in 1812, and baby brother Samuel came along in 1822. Their father, Stephen Merritt, died when Samuel was 12. Nevertheless, his siblings saw to it that he received a proper education and was accepted to attend Bowdoin College to study medicine. While at school, young Samuel lived in the home of his sister and her husband, a doctor and faculty member at Bowdoin.

Many decades later, when Samuel Merritt, by this time grown to 6 foot 4 and 340 pounds and a highly successful California entrepreneur and a lifelong bachelor, needed a woman to look after things at his Victorian mansion overlooking his namesake lake, he sent for his sister to come out and live with him. They shared a home together for close to 30 years.

Construction of Merritt's dream would not commence until 1905, files reveal, and was interrupted by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The earthquake caused extensive damage to the structure, delaying its completion. The facility finally opened for patient care in 1909. The first class of eight nursing students lived together in dormitories on the second and third floors of the hospital. The new hospital was north of downtown, halfway to Berkeley, on property then known as Academy Hill. St. Mary's College at that time was nearby, on Broadway, file photos show. Other hospital institutions eventually would be in the vicinity, earning the area a new name — Pill Hill.

A few years later, another wealthy widow, Henrietta Farrelly, whose late husband, Robert, had been active in Alameda County politics along with Merritt in the 1870s, donated the funds to build separate living quarters for the students; it would be called Farrelly Hall. Farrelly Hall would be a part of the campus for many years until it was demolished in the 1960s to make way for more modern facilities, including the Fontaine Auditorium.

According to the files, conventional nurses' training in the early days relied more on apprenticeship than classroom instruction. Hospitals with a nursing school tended to take economic advantage of the ready supply of hardworking student nurses. They performed long and arduous duties — staffing wards, doing laundry, serving meals, changing beds and more, with little compensation.

World War II caused rapid changes to the profession, as shortages in medical personnel soon arose. Federal legislation, known as the Bolton Act, created the Cadet Nurse Corps and offered qualified high school graduates, ages 17 to 35, free, 30-month training, as well as textbooks, uniforms and a monthly living allowance. All of Merritt's 1943, '44, and '45 graduates — 131 in total — were cadets under the auspices of this federal program.

A book I found useful about the history of nursing and of hospitals in Oakland is "A Century of Caring, a Pictorial History of Alta Bates Summit Medical Center." Copies are available at the Main Library History Room.

For more on Samuel Merritt College, visit www.samuelmerritt.edu.

 

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