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Remembering Abbott Northwestern Hospital's two founders

26 February 2022

Amos Abbott and Harriet Walker rest near each other at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, their legacies linked as the founders of two hospitals, Abbott and Northwestern, that would merge decades after their deaths. But their lives were worlds apart in 1863.

Born to missionary parents in India in 1844, Abbott sailed with his parents at age 3 to Boston. He was studying law at Dartmouth College when the Civil War erupted, prompting him to join a New Hampshire regiment as a drummer boy at 18. In 1863, he was taken prisoner but escaped with the help of an enslaved person from a Confederate prison.

That same year, Harriet Hulet turned 22 and married Thomas Walker, a former classmate at Baldwin University in Berea, Ohio, where she’d studied music. Her husband, a government surveyor and onetime grindstone salesman, had worked for her father and would become a leading figure in Minneapolis as a lumber magnate and art collector; they started the Walker Art Center in their home in 1879.

“Gifted in mind and consecrated in heart, she is a leader among women,” according to a profile of Harriet in an 1893 history of Minneapolis. Harriet Walker “forsakes the avocations of the merely elegant woman, and devotes herself … to the services of the poor, despised and needy,” the Rev. N.C. Chapin wrote.

Harriet Walker beat Abbott to Minneapolis by 13 years, moving there in the spring of 1864 with her new husband. When Harriet wasn’t raising eight children or launching Northwestern Hospital for poor women and children, she was known to write hymns and poetry.

Abbott required hospital care after his prison break, and that’s when a physician urged him to forsake the law for medicine. After mustering out as a private, he studied medicine at Georgetown Medical College in Washington, D.C. He stayed connected to the Army, working in the payroll department and occasionally delivering messages personally to President Abraham Lincoln.

On April 14, 1865, Abbott arrived late for a performance of “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre. “As he approached, he saw a man running from the theater. It was John Wilkes Booth, who had just assassinated President Lincoln,” wrote Dr. Robert Scott, a retired internal medicine physician who practiced at Abbott Northwestern for 41 years.

Digging through papers at the Minnesota Historical Society, Scott researched and wrote “Abbott Northwestern Hospital, 1882-Present: A Celebrated History,” which was published in 2016 (www.tinyurl.com/AbbottNWbook).

Because Abbott Northwestern “had been delivering health care in Minneapolis for more than 100 years,” Scott wrote, “I thought such a history was needed.”

Scott’s book dissects 23 specialties at the hospital, which merged Abbott and Northwestern hospitals on paper in 1970 and physically in 1980. He starts the book with the intriguing backstories of founders Abbott and Walker.

After Abbott left the Army job in 1868, he studied medicine at what became Columbia University’s medical school. He first practiced medicine in Delhi, N.Y., where he met Helen Griswold Wright, a descendant of a Revolutionary War general. After he moved to Minneapolis they married in 1880 and had five children, two of whom died young.

The Abbotts built their home on 2 prime acres, purchased for $1.50 per acre, along Lake Minnetonka’s Bracketts Point. He commuted 24 miles round trip by train daily to Minneapolis to treat patients.

At first renting small houses as makeshift clinics, Abbott took over a girls’ school in 1902 that occupied a three-story yellow brick house in what is now Minneapolis’ Stevens Square neighborhood. Abbott Hospital became the city’s first private surgical center.

With 15 beds and no elevator in the house, an attendant named Jamey often slung patients over his shoulder to move them from the operating room to the second floor, according to Scott’s book.

Over the years, Abbott became an expert in childhood bowel surgeries. He taught classes in anatomy and gynecology, becoming “one of the most prominently known physicians of the city,” the Minneapolis Star said when he died at 83 in 1927.

Harriet Walker was 40 when she gave birth to her eighth child, Archie, in 1882. Concerned about the poverty and disease affecting local mothers, she invited 44 of the city’s society women to a tea to raise money for a hospital to care for them.

Northwestern Hospital for Women and Children was born in 1882 in a rented home with room for 10 patients at 25th Street and 4th Avenue. The hospital’s first elected officers were all women, and Walker would serve as president from Day 1 until her death in 1917 at 75. Of the first 97 patients, 74 received services for free.

At first their work for the destitute women in Minneapolis — “the frail and despairing subjects of their ministry” — was unpopular in the community. But, according to the 1893 city history, “little by little their work gained in public appreciation.”

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.

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