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Phoebe Putney celebrates centennial

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- On the afternoon of the grand opening of Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, ladies of the Hospital Aid Association conducted tours of the new facility.

The community was impressed. According to historical accounts, hallways in the red brick building sparkled with "sanitary white" paint. Solid bronze doorknobs, embossed with the special "PPMH" monogram glistened on doors of fine wood.

With everything included -- land, furnishings and the building itself -- the facility had cost nearly $42,000, or the equivalent of about $1 million today.

The better part of that price tag had come as a gift from "Judge" Francis Flagg Putney, a transplanted Massachusetts Yankee. Among his considerable holdings was the company now known as Flint River Textiles. It was Putney's decision to give to the Albany community, while establishing a memorial to his late mother, Phebe. It is uncertain why the spelling of her first name differs from even the early hospital records.

It was a different day. According to records, Albany undertaker Louis Vannucci purchased a horse-drawn ambulance for Phoebe. It carried "everything necessary for an emergency call," including surgeon's instruments, an ice water cooler, and an electric fan. The primitive vehicle would double as a hearse.

Almost from the beginning, Phoebe nurses were African-American as well as white. As a condition of his donation, Judge Putney had stipulated the hospital serve all races.

Phoebe was active in treating Southwest Georgians during the malaria epidemics of the teens and 1920s. The County Malaria Control Plan, led by Dr. James A. Redfearn and the Kiwanis Club, became a model studied by communities around the world.

In 1921, Phoebe Putney had come to be on shaky legs, financially, but managed to survive a "friendly" takeover attempt by the Georgia Baptist Convention, which wanted to establish a hospital in Albany.

Dr. Andrew H. Hilsman, convinced that Phoebe should remain a hospital without religious affiliation, and concerned about the treatment African-Americans may have received under the new management, wrote an open letter to the editor of The Albany Herald.

In the end, uncertain of total community support, the Georgia Baptist Hospital Board withdrew its offer.

The facility's first major expansion came in 1935, to accommodate 25 beds and two telephones.

Just nine years later, the number of beds had grown to 160 and Phoebe opened its new maternity suite.

In 1953, Phoebe's polio treatment center became the regional treatment center for the disease.

In 1965, J.W. Shirley became the first African-American physician to practice at Phoebe.

Angie Laramore served as head nurse in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Phoebe during that general time period and remembers how different things were then.

"It was a very small hospital," Laramore said. "I was hired in 1964, right out of nursing school. Can you imagine a hospital doing that today?"

According to Laramore, there was no specialized equipment with which patients could be monitored, and so the nurses had to "watch them (the patients) constantly" for problems.

"When doctors came into a room, the nurses stood up," Laramore said, "and I really think that showed more respect. They (the doctors) did used to smoke at the nurses' stations, though."

Everything made of disposal plastic now, was made of glass in those days -- including the syringes -- and had to be sterilized and reused, she said.

Carl Gordon was the first African-American to treat both black and white patients, Laramore said.

When Roland Wetherbee, nephew of Judge Putney, died in 1967, the hospital realized a huge financial windfall. Wetherbee had left the majority of his multi-million dollar estate in trust to Phoebe. The following year, the J. Roland Wetherbee Memorial Wing was dedicated.

Joel Wernick became administrator in 1988.

In anticipation of the Centennial Celebration, Phoebe planned for and has set in motion its 100-Day Countdown Event, featuring programs and celebrities such as Bill Cosby, Temple Grandin, Art of Health and Healing Exhibit and the Women's Health Fair.

The Phoebe centennial year comes to a close with 100 Years of Broadway, performed by the touring company of Neil Berg at the Albany Municipal Auditorium on Nov.17.

As a monument to the Phoebe centennial, Tina Phipps and Lacy Lee, co-chairpersons of Phoebe's 2011 Centennial Celebration Committee, researched the early history of Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and commissioned an historical marker from the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah. It's been erected and stands at the front of the hospital on Jefferson Avenue.