3,000 Babies: 1910-1946 Elizabeth McD. Watson and the Nevada City Sanitarium: A lifetime of public service
By Bob Wyckoff
Special to The Union
THE W.C. JONES MEMORIAL HOSPITAL in Grass Valley opened in 1907, and was the first privately owned hospital in Nevada County. Then in March 1910, Elizabeth McD.Watson together with Laura M. Peterson opened the Nevada City Sanitarium on Coyote Street “on the banks of Manzanita Creek.” The facility operated until 1946, when it was converted to a rest home and served as such until it closed its doors in 1953.
On April 2, 1951, the Nevada County Historical Society paid tribute to two of Nevada City’s most beloved citizens: Elizabeth McD. Watson and George Calanan, naming them Citizens of the Year at a sold out dinner in the now demolished Nevada City Elk’s Club on North Pine Street. (After the disastrous March 2002 fire, a new structure approximating the old rose from the ashes)
Calanan was a Nevada City civic leader and longtime city employee; Elizabeth Watson was a nurse who owned and operated the Nevada City Sanitarium. An additional honor was the proclamation by the city council of “Calanan-Watson Day,” in Nevada City. Congratulations were also received from California’s Governor Earl Warren and Secretary of State Frank H. Jordan. Jordan issued each a “courtesy pass,” allowing them access to all state offices.
Master of ceremonies for the evening was Nevada City raconteur and gadabout Bob Paine. Paine who had known each honoree since his childhood lead, the evening of nostalgia, music and speeches of appreciation. Watson who was 85, had devoted her entire working life to helping others.
Elizabeth McDonald Watson was born near Aberdeen, Scotland in 1867. She had a limited grammar school education and brief attendance at nursing school was halted at age 18, when family illness required her to return home.
At age 32, in 1896, she immigrated to the United States landing in Detroit to be near a brother who was terminally ill. After his death she went to the Lemhi Indian Agency in Idaho and taught cooking and home care to the children.
It was here that she heard of Nevada City and decided to go to the Gold Country, arriving in 1900. Her skills were immediately in demand as she worked at various tenures. While at Lemhi, Watson had continued her nursing studies and “read medicine” with a local physician. At Nevada City, she continued her studies by correspondence course and in 1905, received her nursing diploma from the Chautauqua School in New York.
In 1910, she was joined by Laura M. Peterson and the two established the town’s first general hospital- the Nevada City Sanitarium- in a small cottage on Coyote street. The lot “containing a half-acre of ground (is) laid out with flowers, lawns and trees; it is a restful, picturesque spot…,” according to a contemporary report. As the demand grew, so did the hospital. By 1920, the facility contained eight rooms for patients and a new wing was added containing a well-equipped operating room.
The women operated the hospital until 1946, when it was converted to a rest home. The rest home closed in 1953, but Peterson remained with Watson taking care of her until her death at age 90, on January 3, 1957.
Watson was proud of the sanitarium’s record of never losing a mother in childbirth, except in one case where the mother died as a result of a pre-existing condition. The hospital recorded 3,000 births and Dr. Harry March, who in 1951, used the sanitarium as his medical office, listed more than 1,500 maternity cases in 18 years of practice there.
In addition to an exemplary maternity record, the hospital had a reputation for excellence in caring for all types of illness and accidents. In 1918, during the Spanish flu epidemic following World War I, the sanitarium did not loose a single patient. The hospital was taxed to the limit with beds in the hallways; no one was turned away.
Her obituary in The Union said in part, “(She) was beloved to all for great humanitarian work and unselfish interest in the community…and its people…Her affection for Nevada City and Nevada county…gave her a deep feeling for the needs of the people here and she kept her hospital for local patients almost exclusively.”
BOB WYCKOFF is a retired Nevada County newspaper editor/publisher and author of local history publications including “The Way It Was; Looking Back in Nevada County,” published by and available at The Union newspaper office 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945. Contact: email@example.com or PO Box 216, Nevada City CA 95959.
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