New London Hospital Marks Its Centennial

  • Morgan Housebuilt 1823New London Hospital (1918)Tracy Library (1926) courtesy New London Historical Society

Concord Monitor
Published: 10/17/2018 11:48:26 PM
Modified: 10/18/2018 11:06:55 AM

New London — Sometimes, a 100th anniversary is a time to celebrate.

Sometimes, 100 years is a time to reflect on a dark period.

And sometimes, in the case of New London Hospital, it’s time to do both.

The town held its annual Hospital Days Parade this summer, a bigger-than-usual festival downtown that served as a promotional event for the area medical community.

Look deeper, though, and you’ll learn that this hospital got its start, with four beds and one operating room, because, in part, of the very real fear caused by the Spanish Flu in 1918, the same year that World War I ended.

The war claimed as many as 20 million lives in four years. The great pandemic, by some estimates, killed at least 50 million in two years. Never was the flu deadlier than it was in October 1918.

A century ago, two wars were raging simultaneously, and that meant the tiny New London Hospital’s opening, already planned, was facilitated to meet the growing threat here, as the other threat in Europe drew to a close.

On the front lines here were doctors named Nathan Griffin, Charles Lamson and Anna Littlefield, a woman in a man’s profession whose trailblazing effort early in the last century was noteworthy. There were the people connected with the New London Nursing Association, including Emma Colby, Florence Griffin and Eliza Robbins. And there was the rich woman, Jane Allyn Foote Tracy, who opened part of her home to start the hospital before the flu had taken hold in the town.

Meanwhile, the Spanish Flu already had started its path of destruction, spreading like the war itself had done four years earlier through a series of alliances and increased nationalism.

Where the flu started remains up for debate. Rural Kansas? France? Asia?

What’s certain is World War I helped create the illness and spread its strain. Soldiers traveled to the front lines and back home. Hospitals and medical camps and Army barracks were packed. This was a germ’s paradise. This was a very dirty world.

Closer to home, the flu’s New England roots sprang from Fort Devens in Ayer, Mass. Soon, it made its way to New Hampshire.

In Sunapee, “they had a big influenza problem,” said Jim Perkins, archivist for the New London Historical Society. “They had to close down schools.”

In Berlin, a New England Historical Society publication quoted a public health worker: “It is hardly possible for me to describe the conditions in this community. I am the only experienced public health worker here with the exception of the staff. Saturday, I cared for 40 patients, from four to nine sick in one family.”

In Concord, nearly 300 cases were reported, and one resident, General Charles Doyen, had returned from the front, bringing the disease with him. He died in October.

That story was relayed by area historian Byron Champlin, who also told the tale about Ansel Campbell. He died on Oct. 26, a few hours after he was released from the hospital in Concord.

His wife, Carrie, had died on Oct. 18, and her daughter, Delvina, succumbed to the flu four days before that.

“There was so much death and so many young people who died,” Champlin said. “A father dies and a little son dies and a daughter dies and a mother is left to bury them all.”

Back in New London, a movement had started to build a local hospital, inspired by the doctors and nurses mentioned above. Tracy, the widow of an industrial magnate, stepped up to the plate, offering part of her home, at the intersection of Main and Pleasant streets.

Around the state at the time, people were dying. And around the state, New London’s three doctors were responding, traveling outside the town to make house calls, reacting to a sickness that at the time was not fully understood, in nature and scope.

New London Hospital, already in the works, was needed more than anyone could have imagined.

“Everyone recognized the need for a facility,” said Tim Lund, the manager of marketing and communications at New London Hospital. “The founding doctors were traveling all over the place, seeing people sick in the outlying areas. There was a need for a central location, and this highlighted the need for that.

“What the Spanish Flu did was put an accelerator on our need for a hospital.”

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