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Mary Hitchcock Memorial at 125: DHMC Celebrates Legacy of Community Hospital Precursor

  • People listen to Jim Varnum, former President of Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital, speak at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., on May 6, 2018. Sunday marked the 125th anniversary celebration for Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Carly Geraci

  • Norma Angwin, of Concord, N.H., writes down a fond memory from Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., on May 6, 2018. In 1961, Angwin graduated from the Mary Hitchcock School of Nursing. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs —Carly Geraci

  • Dartmouth Aires sings during the 125th anniversary celebration for Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., on May 6, 2018. The group is an acapella choir from Dartmouth College. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Carly Geraci

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/7/2018 12:32:51 AM
Modified: 5/7/2018 12:32:52 AM

Lebanon — Hospital administrators, doctors and nurses who once worked and studied at Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital gathered on Sunday to celebrate the Hanover facility that ultimately gave rise to New Hampshire’s largest health system.

In speeches and alumni gatherings at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, past and present hospital leaders said much of the Upper Valley’s health care prestige is owed to the work at Mary Hitchcock, which opened its doors on May 3, 1893.

“While the physical building is gone, Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital lives on today as one of the founding members of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock health system,” Jim Varnum, who led the hospital for 28 years, told a conference room of hospital and community leaders.

“Without (Hiram Hitchcock’s) vision 125 years ago, we would not be standing here today amid the hustle and bustle of a busy 21st Century academic medical center,” he said.

The story of Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital began in the mid-19th century with its namesake, Mary Maynard Hitchcock, and the love of her husband, Hiram, Varnum told the audience.

Both grew up and became childhood sweethearts in the community of Drewsville, N.H., a village in Walpole, and were married in 1858 after “a long courtship,” Varnum said.

At the time, Mary was 24 years old, and Hiram had already become successful managing hotels in New Orleans and Massachusetts.

Shortly after their wedding, the couple moved to New York City where Hiram helped build the Fifth Avenue Hotel.

It was there where Mary became a successful host, and welcomed the likes of President Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt, Varnum said.

But while their business lives were a success, the Hitchcocks also faced personal losses. Their daughter Mary died at only a month old in 1863, and their son Maynard died at 14 months.

Three years later, Hiram retired at age 34 due to poor health and the couple began traveling the world. The family also purchased a home in Hanover during that period, Varnum said.

Once Hiram reentered business in 1879, the couple began splitting their time between the Upper Valley and New York City until Mary died of unknown causes in 1887 at the age of 53.

Around the same time, a group of doctors and professors at Dartmouth College’s School of Medicine were working to establish a hospital in Hanover, acquiring land and establishing a small fund. The money wasn’t enough, though, and they approached Hiram Hitchcock for a donation.

“Hiram would become its principal and virtually sole benefactor,” Varnum said.

Hiram purchased another 5 acres of land and paid roughly $220,000 for construction of the new facility, which was dedicated in 1893.

“This hospital is a lasting memorial of the great moral and sympathetic power of a noble Christian woman’s life in its devotion to the relief of human suffering and misery,” Hiram Hitchcock was reported to have told Dr. Carleton Frost, then-dean of the Dartmouth College School of Medicine.

But the hospital wasn’t without struggles. In its first year, there was a lack of patients, which led to an operating deficit of about $7,000, according to Joanne Conroy, who became CEO and president of Dartmouth-Hitchcock about eight months ago.

However, the community provided donations to help get the hospital on its feet, she said. The institution continued to grow until 1991, when patients, doctors and operations moved into the $218 million Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon.

“There are not a lot of academic medical centers that actually have built a separate institution miles away and then in one day, actually moved all the patients,” Conroy said. “It’s kind of like the biggest field marshal exercise in the world.”

That move was “the beginning of our future,” she said, marking the beginning of a hospital system that now includes Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon, Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center in Windsor, New London Hospital and Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, N.H.

All together, the system covers a population of 1.9 million people and is the largest provider of care in New Hampshire, and second in Vermont, Conroy said.

“When you think about it, fewer than 40 percent of the people who are in beds here actually live in the Upper Valley, which is almost unheard of,” she said. “We know more probably about how to deliver care across a broad footprint than many of our colleagues across the country.”

The hospital also continues to serve Hiram Hitchcock’s vision, serving both employees and the greater community, Conroy said.

Everyone — from the staff who greet visitors at the front door to nurses, doctors and maintenance workers — is part of the hospital’s path to success, she said. Continuing to deliver safe care and accept people seeking the answers to today’s health care problems will also remain important in the coming 125 years, Conroy said.

“Without the interaction of many smart and dedicated past leaders, and hopefully future leaders, we would not be able to paint this future,” she said.

Tim Camerato can be reached at or 603-727-3223.

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