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From Health To Human Services

January 4, 1932


During two separate incarnations over the course of more than 70 years, the V-shaped limestone building nestled in the Lilac Lane cul-de-sac on the campus of the University of Kansas has been in the healing business, broadly defined.

For the first four decades of its existence, present-day Twente Hall was called the Watkins Memorial Hospital, one of many gifts to the University from philanthropist Elizabeth Watkins. The facility was opened officially on January 4, 1932, and became a place where KU students could receive expert, on-campus medical care.

In 1974, following the student health center’s move to new and expanded quarters on the south side of the KU campus, the old hospital building was renamed in honor of Professor Esther E. Twente and became home to the School of Social Welfare, which she had been instrumental in establishing. Where once students sought needed medical care, now students learn how to provide needed social services to distressed individuals and communities.

Both health care and human services were in short supply during the first four decades of KU’s existence. This virtual absence of on-campus health care became increasingly problematic in the early years of the twentieth century. Periodic outbreaks of contagious diseases such as typhoid, diphtheria – and in one reported case, smallpox – stressed KU’s ability to provide anything resembling proper medical treatment to stricken students.

In 1908, following a severe diphtheria epidemic, the University approved the establishment of a makeshift hospital, supported entirely by voluntary student fees, in a rented home just off campus. The location of this student hospital, such as it was, changed five times over the next two decades. These ad-hoc facilities were always under-funded and under-staffed. This band-aid approach proved wholly inadequate during the influenza epidemics of 1918 and 1928.

Remedies, however, were on the way. The first long stride toward high-quality medical care at KU came in 1928 when the University dispensed with the employ of part-time physicians and hired Dr. Ralph I. Canuteson as the full-time director of Hospital and Health. He and his staff still operated out of humble accommodations – at this point a converted private home at 1406 Tennessee Street – but an even more significant improvement was in the offing. In September 1930, KU and Lawrence benefactress Elizabeth M. Watkins announced that she planned to give the University $150,000 to construct a new, freestanding student hospital in memory of her late husband, banker and financier Jabez B. Watkins.

Four years earlier, Mrs. Watkins had given the University $75,000 to build Watkins Scholarship Hall (also named after her husband), a residence for self-supporting female students – “the girls,” she once said, “who must travel up-hill.” She had also donated the Watkins National Bank building at Eleventh and Massachusetts to the people of Lawrence to be used as city hall (it is now the Watkins Community Museum of History), and provided $200,000 for the construction of Lawrence Memorial Hospital.

Herself the daughter of a physician, Mrs. Watkins’ interest in funding the establishment of a student hospital at KU was motivated by her wish “to contribute to the welfare of the thousands of students here in the years to come, long after I have gone from the scene,” as she later recalled to the Kansas City Star. “With a properly equipped hospital and a corps of health experts here on campus and at the service of every student, they may learn how to care for their health, upon which their future success and happiness would largely depend.”

Following her announcement, the University set about identifying a site for the new facility. Early plans called for locating it near present-day Carruth-O’Leary Hall, a spot that was far to the west of what was then the geographical heart of the campus. Complaints soon surfaced that the proposed site was “way out there in the country,” not merely a long walk from the center of KU, but prohibitively far for someone suffering from a serious physical malady.

Chief among these critics was the benefactress herself. She contended “the availability for the students was a very important factor in [the hospital’s] usefulness.” KU quickly reversed course and chose a more accessible location.

Plan B wedged the new hospital in the rather tight space between Blake Hall (the original one, located on the site of present-day Blake) and a since-demolished building originally known as Chemical Hall, which was situated roughly in the same area as the east stacks of present-day Watson Library. The new setting would also be within sight of Mrs. Watkins’ private residence, The Outlook (now the official chancellor’s residence), as well as Watkins Scholarship Hall.

Building on the Lilac Lane cul-de-sac was a victory for convenience, but it also necessitated increased building costs. Originally, $125,000 of the $150,000 gift was slated for erection of a structure built of brick, with the remainder to be devoted to equipping the hospital. With the change in venue, reported State Architect Joseph W. Radotinsky, the estimate for constructing the hospital was about $25,000 higher.

There were two principal reasons for the increase. First, considering the new hospital’s proximity to several KU landmark structures built of stone – old Blake, old Fraser, and Watson Library – it was thought the new structure should be of stone as well, since lower-cost brick would not fit in aesthetically in these environs. Second, taking account of the hillside and the comparatively small area between the proposed facility and its neighbors, a more elaborate and expensive foundation would be required. Mrs. Watkins didn’t blink. She promptly upped her pledge to $175,000.

Before any specific architectural plans were finalized, Radotinsky teamed with Dr. Canuteson and F.A. Russell, a KU civil engineering professor, for site visits to a number of state universities across the country. Their goals were to assess the layout and capabilities of each school’s student health centers to ensure that KU’s new hospital would have the most modern amenities and make the most efficient use of space.

When the trio returned to Lawrence, they incorporated many of the best features of the facilities they had toured into the final design for the new hospital. On March 14, 1931, formal groundbreaking for Watkins Memorial Hospital took place.

Many KU students and faculty watched as contractor B.A. Green, who had also built the Watkins-funded Lawrence Memorial Hospital, ceremoniously removed the first shovel of dirt. The pace of construction was rapid. In the months that followed, it became evident that this would not be an ordinary campus building.

Constructed with Indiana limestone, the new hospital did keep with the unwritten KU tradition of favoring red clay tile roofs. But beyond that, the exterior of Watkins Memorial Hospital seemed to conform to no distinct architectural style. The most fitting description a contemporary issue of the University Daily Kansan could muster was that the new building evoked a “modernistic type of architecture.”

However one defines its architectural style, it was – and remains – an Oread original. Perhaps most striking is its art deco-inspired central entry tower topped by a stone spire. From this point emanate the structure’s two flattened V-shaped wings at a 130-degree angle. Above the main entryway is a limestone relief depicting St. George (the patron saint of medicine) slaying the Dragon (representing disease) sculpted by Professor Marjorie Whitney, who was chair of KU’s department of design at the time of the building’s construction. Additional ornamentation on the front includes a sculpted door and reliefs of animals, garlands and flowers on the tower.

Likewise gracing the exterior, at the suggestion of Dr. Canuteson, are the last names of 10 leading men of science and medicine, carved into the stone. Among these are Hippocrates, the Greek “father of medicine”; Louis Pasteur, the Frenchman most famous for his development of pasteurization but also a pioneer in microbiology and immunology; and English scientist Edward Jenner, creator of the first vaccine against the endemic scourge of smallpox.

The combination of these distinct elements certainly had an effect on KU Chancellor Ernest H. Lindley, “Those who have visited the beautiful Watkins Memorial Hospital,” he once rhapsodized, “come instantly under the spell of its beauty.”

The interior was equally arresting. As the February 1932 edition of the Graduate Magazine remarked, once inside, visitors might have been excused for not immediately recognizing the building as a hospital. Mrs. Watkins herself had worked hard to inspire this reaction. Years before, she helped devise the interior décor of Watkins Scholarship Hall. This time around, she personally selected the rich wood furnishings for the patients’ rooms and common areas, purposely differentiating them from the stark, sterile whiteness of most hospitals.

For example, the infirmary contained 46 walnut beds, each of which had a Jayhawk carved in the headboard – another artistic touch courtesy of Professor Whitney. (Her Jayhawk depiction, incidentally, was her own innovation; it does not exactly resemble any of the mascots ever used by the University.)

The building’s bottom floor was a sub-basement housing the laundry, transformer room, various storage areas, and a garage able to receive ambulances and allow the sick and injured to be taken upstairs quickly via elevator. The main basement above contained the kitchen, nurses’ dressing and dining rooms, a lecture room, and additional storage capacity. The ground floor comprised five examination rooms; operating, sterilizing, and doctors’ office and dressing rooms; and space for modern X-ray machines, an electrocardiograph, optometry equipment, plus a pharmacy.

The second and third floors were almost exclusively devoted to patient care. The former contained 32 beds; the latter had 14. (At the time, KU’s enrollment was around 4,500.) The third floor also housed two porches, the hospital’s “contagion ward,” and a south-end Sun Room that also benefited from Professor Whitney’s decorative talents. Her oil-on-canvas mural featured a Kansas sunflower and Jayhawk theme, intending to evoke soothing and playful images of health and recovery.

Although it had been taking patients since January 1932, formal dedication ceremonies for Watkins Memorial Hospital were held during Commencement on June 5 of that year. “A wealth of research and planning was wrought into the structure,” said Chancellor Lindley. “It embodies the experience derived from study of the best student hospitals in the country. The hospital, therefore, is perhaps one of the most adequate buildings of this sort in the United States.”

The laconic Lindley may have understated it a bit. All evidence suggests that the hospital’s interior and exterior design impressed many from outside the University as well. Six months earlier, Dr. Canuteson had shown blueprints and photographs of KU’s new Watkins Memorial Hospital to his fellow directors at the American Student Health Service’s national meeting in New York City, several of whom asked to borrow the plans to show to their school administrators.

At the dedication, Chancellor Lindley profusely thanked Elizabeth Watkins, hailing her as “among the greatest benefactors in the history of the University and of the State.”

For her part, the donor told the assembled KU students that the hospital was the embodiment of her “desire to contribute to your welfare. I feel that the future success and happiness of yourselves, as well as the future prosperity of this state, depends to a considerable extent on the proper care of your health.” If “you will appreciate this gift in the spirit in which it is given” and resolve to “take care of the facilities at your disposal,” she added, it will be “my greatest happiness.”

Before her death seven years later, Elizabeth Watkins gave KU an additional $41,000 in 1937 to build the nearby Watkins Nurses Home, a residence for the nurses who worked at the hospital. And in her will, she left another $175,000 bequest for the future upkeep and modernization of the hospital itself – a dedicated fund that by 2004 had grown to almost $1 million.

These monies, along with student fees and the income from specialized diagnostic and medical services, meant that the facility could offer first-rate student health care and be entirely self-supporting without need for additional University funding.

By the early 1960s, the hospital employed six full-time physicians; more than 20 registered nurses; two physical therapists; laboratory and X-ray technicians; a full complement of mental health professionals, including a full-time psychiatrist; a dietician; a medical librarian; and a large clerical staff.

Students had access to a speech therapist and could undergo minor surgery. Those with certain dietary needs could purchase and eat specially prepared meals in the hospital dining room. During this time, there was even a cadre of volunteer “hostesses,” led by Barbara Wescoe, wife of KU Chancellor W. Clarke Wescoe, who helped gather hospitalized students’ books and homework, brought them their mail and saw to a variety of other personal needs.

Yet Watkins Memorial Hospital could never escape its principal drawback – the lack of expandability. This disadvantage had become unmistakably apparent by the late 1960s as KU enrollment rocketed to over 10,000, more than double the number of students the hospital originally had been built to serve.

Apparently, it was not so much the paucity of beds – there had been no widespread epidemics, and the facility, in a bind, could accommodate up to 60 in-patients – as it was the general crush of daily traffic and the problem of finding room for new equipment and a burgeoning staff. As the 1970s dawned, it was clear that the hospital’s days were numbered.

Fully cognizant of the overcrowding problems, the University began making provisions for a larger student hospital on the south end of campus. By March 1974, the new Watkins Memorial Health Center on Sunnyside Street began receiving its first patients.

But a second life was in the offing for the vacated building. On May 6 of that year, KU Chancellor Archie R. Dykes gave the dedicatory address at a formal ceremony marking the former hospital’s new role as home to the School of Social Welfare. The building was re-christened Twente Hall, in honor of one of the School’s most beloved and longest-serving professors, Esther Elizabeth Twente.

Born in 1895, this “grand and wonderful lady,” as Dykes called her, was a native Missourian who received her AB degree from the University of Missouri and an MA from the University of Chicago before beginning a more than 50-year career as a field social worker, author, and educator. She had been active in the Red Cross, worked in inner-city communities in New York, and ably assisted Depression-era Kansans in Arkansas City, Dodge City, and Wichita.

In 1937, after teaching at the Universities of Minnesota and Denver, Twente came to KU. She joined the Sociology Department and began developing courses in practical social work. Nine years later, she spearheaded the formation of a separate KU Department of Social Work. Serving as its first chair, she later guided the department’s transformation into the School of Social Welfare.

In 1963, Twente’s friends, colleagues, and School alumni established the Esther Twente Scholarship Fund. And in 1970, then holding professor emerita status, she was elected to the Women’s Hall of Fame at the University of Kansas.

By this time, the 75-year-old Twente, whom one colleague described as still “jet-propelled,” had been focusing her energies on helping the elderly live fulfilling and productive lives in their late years; indeed, her 1970 book on this subject, Never Too Old, is considered a classic in the field. In bestowing on her Kansas’ Distinguished Senior Citizen award of 1971, Governor Robert Docking praised her ageless enthusiasm and “interest in improving social services for the people of the state.”

Twente did not live to see the former hospital building renamed in her honor – she died on December 18, 1971, at the age of 76. Reflecting on her life of service, Dr. Carroll D. Clark, chair of the KU Department of Sociology, described Twente as one who “contributed importantly to the philosophy of social welfare in a free society” and who, as both teacher and administrator, exhibited “indomitable courage, resolution and resourcefulness.”

Former KU Chancellor Deane W. Malott (1939-1951) fondly remembered her as “quiet, unassuming, but persistent. Personally modest, she had a forward gleam in her eye that led one to feel that in her chosen profession she was on the forefront of change and experiment.”

As Malott also noted in his eulogy, Esther Twente ranked “as one of the real builders of the University.” Thus, the structure that now bears her name fittingly links her with Elizabeth Watkins, a veritable and prolific builder of KU in her own right.

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: The most abundant source of materials relating to Twente Hall can be found in the Twente Hall (Watkins Memorial Hospital) building files housed in University Archives, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas. The documents consulted in preparation of this article, in general order of usage, are as follows:
For an account of the University’s health care facilities before Watkins Hospital and the construction of the hospital itself, see Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread, (University Press of Kansas, 1955), pp. 142-143, and Clifford S. Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History (University Press of Kansas, 1974), pp. 441-443. A more comprehensive history of Watkins Memorial Hospital, focusing on its construction, personnel and accoutrements, can be found in the February 1932 edition of the Graduate Magazine, pp. 3-13, which was given almost wholly over to marking its official opening on campus.
Mrs. Elizabeth Watkins’ record of giving to the University can be followed in the following sources: A wealth of materials can be found in the Elizabeth M. Watkins Morgue File housed in University Archives, Spencer Research Library. Of particular interest are the following: University Daily Kansan, September 14, 1926, p. 4; June 1, 1939, p. 1; June 4, 1939, p. 1, and March 18, 1998. Kansas City Star, February 24, 1935, p. 1. Graduate Magazine (June 1939), pp. 11-12; Lawrence Journal-World, June 1, 1939, p. 1; “The Watkins Story: Wise Philanthropy,” Alumni Magazine (November 1951), pp. 6-7, 10. “The Benefactions of Mrs. Elizabeth M. Watkins at the University of Kansas,” remarks of Irvin E. Youngberg, Douglas County Historical Society, and November 11, 1971. Also helpful are Clifford Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, pp. 421-422, 441-443; Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread, pp. 142-143, 149-151, 207-208; and on Jabez B. Watkins, see Allan G. Bogue, Money at Interest: The Farm Mortgage on the Middle Border, (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1969), Part 2, passim, and 193-194, 204, 266-267.]
The quote about the University’s early plans to locate the new hospital near present-day Carruth-O’Leary Hall can be found in the Index of the Twente Hall Building File, University Archives, Spencer Research Library.
For information about the design phase, groundbreaking, actual construction and eventual opening of Watkins Memorial Hospital, copies of which are located in the Twente Hall Building File, see: Graduate Magazine (February 1932), pp. 3-13; Dr. Ralph I. Canuteson to J.W. Radotinsky, May 5, 1931; University Daily Kansan, March 15, 1931; University Daily Kansan, January 4, 1932; University Daily Kansan, January 5, 1932. Also quite helpful is a 31-page booklet titled “Watkins Memorial Hospital” (1932), published to coincide with the hospital’s dedication. For a brief account of the exterior sculpture work, see Kansas Alumni 99:2 (2001), p. 60.
Information about the hospital’s evolution and expanding services can be found in the following sources, all accessible in the Twente Hall Building File: “Your University Health Service (1940); “University of Kansas Health Service: Watkins Memorial Hospital” (1940); “Your Health Service at the University of Kansas” (1951); “The University of Kansas Student Health Service” (1963).
The best source of materials on Professor Esther E. Twente is the Esther Twente Morgue File housed in University Archives; some of the most useful documents are: “A Tribute to the Life and Work of Esther E. Twente, 1895-1971,” Presented by Alumni, Faculty, and Friends of the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare (Social Work Day, May 8, 1972); “In Memoriam: Esther Elizabeth Twente” (1972); KU News Bureau Press Release, December 20, 1972. Also helpful is a brief biographical sketch of Prof. Twente done in April 1938 shortly after she arrived at KU. A copy of Chancellor Archie R. Dykes’ comments at the Twente Hall dedication (May 6, 1974) is available in the Twente Morgue File as well.
For a description of the new Twente Hall mural, see Kansas Alumni 95:6 (1997), p. 71. And for an account of how the original refurbished Watkins Memorial Hospital mural made its way over to the new Watkins Memorial Health Center, see Oread 27:1 (August 23, 2002).
The author wishes to thank John Scarffe, director of communications, KU Endowment Association, for his help with this article.