Michael Reese Hospital History

This history, and many of the images below, are drawn largely from All Our Lives: A Centennial History of Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center, 1881-1981, edited by Sarah Gordon. ©Copyright 1981, Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center. Please note that the following is meant to provide an overview with selected highlights. Therefore, it admittedly cannot do justice to the Hospital’s remarkable and intricate legacy of service and advancement of the field for more than a century, or to the scores of extraordinary men and women who provided quality care, research achievement, generous resources and leadership. Those who wish to know more may want to refer to the aforementioned publication or other sources.

Michael Reese, A Brief Biography

The elder son of Clara and Moses Reese, Michael Reese, was born on August 15, 1817, in the Bavarian town of Hainsfurth. Driven by an ambitious spirit, Reese left for the United States at the age of nineteen, where he quickly caught smallpox, and spent his first few weeks in Baltimore near death. Once recovered, he spent the next several years in various trades before moving to New York City where he opened an import business. It was then that he made enough money to bring over from Bavaria his brother, Samuel, and sisters, Elise, Mary, Hannah, Henrietta, Theresa, and Lena. They settled in Chicago, however, Reese himself headed elsewhere.


Michael Reese

After a number of failed business ventures, Reese began purchasing thousands of acres of land in Minnesota. Then, shortly after the Gold Rush began, energized from recent acquisitions, he traveled to San Francisco in 1850. There, he bought into the shipping business. But fortune was not on his side – a number of his ships were wrecked in a storm, and what little money he had remaining in the venture was lost in three calamities: the closing of the Barton Lee and Company Bank of Sacramento, the first major San Francisco fire, and the financial panic of 1857. 

But Michael Reese’s misfortunes would soon pass. In 1858 gold was discovered in British Columbia. Reese saw a unique opportunity: while many San Francisco miners departed for Canada, Reese stayed behind, buying up thousands of acres of land, the value of which had dropped significantly. When disappointed miners began to return from their journey, the demand for real estate soared. Michael Reese became a millionaire. 

Little is known about Reese’s later life or his death. In 1877, he set out to Bavaria, where he was born. He died in the course of his travels. Reese never married, and when he died, his property and wealth were distributed among his relatives. He also left substantial sums of money to several hospitals and orphanages, including Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum, and Eureka Benevolent Society. Other members of his family were already committed to the principles of charity, aiding the poor through the Hebrew Relief Association of Chicago. Brother-in-law Jacob Rosenberg, a beneficiary of Michael Reese’s Will, was especially involved with the Association to found a Jewish hospital for the city of Chicago. Their first effort was destroyed during the Chicago Fire of 1871, and Jacob was quick to realize that some of his newfound wealth could be used to rebuild the hospital. He convinced two of his nephews, Henry L. Frank and Joseph Frank, and his sister, Henrietta Rosenfeld, to give funds to the Association for this purpose. Work began on a second hospital.

The Founding of Michael Reese Hospital

Cornerstone ceremonies for the new building took place on November 4, 1880. A crowd gathered to listen to speeches by local philanthropists and community leaders. 

A keynote speaker, Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, announced the two conditions under which the Reese funds had been given to the hospital. The first was that the hospital was to be named the Michael Reese Hospital. The second condition was that the Hospital would treat all patients regardless of creed or nationality. People from all backgrounds were to be received and cared for in its wards.

Work on the building itself, planned by “modern Gothic” architect John H. Cochrane, began soon thereafter. The Hospital would stand three stories high and house sixty patients. By October 23, 1881, Michael Reese Hospital was dedicated and opened for patient care. 

Throughout much of the 1880’s, expenditures frequently exceeded income, and the Hospital relied on non-financial donations to ensure the continued operation. In addition, Ladies’ sewing societies gave linens, bandages, and towels, and the Young Ladies’ Aid Society (later called the Chicago Woman’s Aid), gave magazines, newspapers, and flowers for patients. Individuals also contributed a variety of “in-kind” gifts, ranging from fruit to crutches and toys.

Medical Science and Research

Although Michael Reese Hospital was founded in the spirit of a Jewish tradition of charity, it also rode the wave of a revolution in medical science. During the 1860’s, doctors in Europe were developing a unified theory about the spread of disease. This “germ theory,” identified microscopic organisms as the cause of a number of diseases. The disease rate was found to be much higher in dirty areas, particularly those with a polluted water supply. There was much controversy in these ideas, but while many doctors still believed this theory to be false up through the 1880’s, staff at Michael Reese grasped the significance of these findings early on, and medical research soon became a guiding force of the Hospital.  

By 1900, the science of bacteriology assumed central importance in hospital routine. Doctors took blood and tissue samples from ailing patients and examined them in the laboratory – as new bacteria were discovered and identified, corresponding vaccines were sought, and the medical pharmacopoeia began to grow. 

A direct result of this research can be seen with the pioneering house-to-house study conducted by Dr. Theodore Sachs in 1902, a few years after his internship at Reese.  This seminal study resulted in a detailed map of tuberculosis in congested districts within Chicago. This map graphically showed just how prevalent the illness had become, how it concentrated in overcrowded areas, and the map and study informed how to focus preventive efforts.

The Patients

In 1881, patients at Michael Reese came from most of the countries of Europe, including in part, Germany, Russia, Poland, Ireland, Sweden, Norway, Hungary, France, and Scotland. Many of them were unable to afford medical care and yet were suffering from serious problems that demanded immediate attention, such as cholera, diabetes, consumption (tuberculosis), and alcoholism. In the spirit of charity from which it was initially founded, Michael Reese Hospital soon became a haven for the uprooted and destitute.

The End of a Century

In 1888, the United Hebrew Relief Association changed its name to the United Hebrew Charities. It was under that name, that in 1890, it established a vital addition to the Hospital – a training school for nurses. Two years later a nurses’ residence was built on the Hospital grounds. This was a critical innovation in health care. Prior to the advent of nursing care, bedside care was provided by untrained workers, a standard practice throughout the United States. The Michael Reese Training School for Nurses was created “to improve furthermore the comforts of the suffering and at the same time to open a new avenue of industry to intelligent and conscientious young ladies.”

With the surging numbers of poor and often uneducated immigrants from Eastern Europe came the necessity for improving the scale of decent medical care. Recognizing this, in 1893 a small group of physicians from the Hospital approached the United Hebrew Charities to offer their services. Thus, the United Hebrew Charities Free Dispensary was established, with seventeen physicians, operating in four examining rooms, a waiting room, and a drugstore. Prescriptions were filled for a nominal fee of ten cents each, but were provided free of charge for those who could not afford that. In its first year of operation, an astounding 1,400 patients were treated each month. In 1901, more than 20,000 patients were treated and 23,000 prescriptions were filled. Julius H. Isacowitz, superintendent of the dispensary, wrote: “The Dispensary, being so readily accessible to those who most need its services, seems a powerful preventative; it saves great numbers of people from complicated and serious illness by caring for them before they have reached the hospital stage of their ailments.”

In the beginning, women were segregated from men in the Hospital’s wards, but even so, little attention was paid to the unique problems of pregnancy and childbirth. That was to change. In April of 1897 the Annex for Women and Children was opened in response to a growing demand for women giving birth at hospitals instead of homes. Doctors emphasized that the hospital was a cleaner, safer environment for giving birth than the home.

A New Hospital and Renewed Leadership

In 1907, a new main building was opened. The new structure was safer, more efficient, and considerably larger than the old building, housing 240 beds instead of sixty, more space for private rooms, large operating facilities, and separate sections for children and maternity care. The size and complexity of the new institution required a change in governance – the United Hebrew Charities standing Hospital Committee was disbanded, and Michael Reese acquired its own board of directors. Under this new leadership, Michael Reese began more aggressive fundraising, and in 1910, received two substantial grants from the Nelson Morris family.

By the 1920’s, new fundraising efforts made it possible for the Hospital to hire full-time researchers for the first time, including groups specializing in cardiology and gastroenterology. The new Hospital soon became a seedbed of clinical observation and research. Three more buildings were also added: a residence for nurses, a private-patient pavilion, and a clinic.

In the area of infant health, especially among premature and high-risk newborns, Reese played a key role in advancing the field under the leadership of Dr. Julius Hess, who experimented using incubation for premature infants as early as 1915, and published research establishing innovative life-saving strategies [e.g., The Premature and Congenitally Diseased Infant, 1922]. The “Hess Incubator,” as it was called, controlled the infant’s environment through regulation of humidity, temperature and oxygen. One of these early Hess Incubators was put on display at the Smithsonian Institution 


Hess Incubator Bed

Importantly, working closely with Dr. Hess in the 1920’s, nurse Evelyn Lundeen methodically supervised the station for premature newborns. She worked in that area for thirty-eight years, strictly insisting that physicians always thoroughly wash their hands, and restricting the area to avoid spreading disease. Infant mortality rates at Reese among prematurely born newborns was said to be considerably lower than at counterpart institutions. 

In the years after World War I, the Hospital began creating programs to educate the poor and disabled, extending services to improve health well beyond traditional hospital care. It was now standard policy to provide poor families with the latest ideas on children’s diet, care for diabetics, help for those with disabilities, and other community health-care programs. 

Around 1930, Dr. Louis Katz, a physiologist, came to Reese from Western Reserve University in Cleveland and became the first full time investigator. He pioneered the relationship between heart disease and metabolism, and established a link between heart disease and cholesterol in the blood. With Katz’s breakthroughs, along with the investigative advances of Dr. Richard Langendorf and later Dr. Alfred Pick, Reese’s cardiovascular research achieved international renown.  

Longtime Reese Board member, Sidney Schwartz, was a major supporter of psychiatric research and care. There is a belief that Schwartz came to notice a sizable number of patients complaining of illness who were informed by physicians that they had no physical basis for the claimed illness. Schwartz, despite the wishes of some medical staff members, sought to have these patients evaluated and treated by a psychiatrist. In response, Dr. Jacob Kasanin joined Reese in 1930 to head an outpatient psychiatric service within the Mandel Clinic. Then, in 1936, the first inpatient psychiatric department was established and directed by Dr. Roy Grinker, formerly of the University of Chicago.   After World War II, Dr. Grinker initiated the Psychosomatic and Psychiatric Institute for research and care. 

On the Battlefield

When the United States entered World War II in 1941, doctors at Reese organized a field hospital known as the Sixteenth Evacuation Unit. After five months of training, the unit sailed to North Africa in April of 1943. There, doctors treated wounded Germans and Italians in a prison camp. For their efforts, the men and women of the Unit received a Bronze Star.

On the home front, doctors made the switch from basic exploratory research to applied research. Drs. Sidney O. Levinson and Franz Oppenheimer developed a technique for freeze-drying plasma so that it could be easily stored and transported, a development that saved the lives of countless injured Americans on the battlefield. 

Postwar Changes

By the end of World War II, portions of the Chicago’s South Side had become significantly dilapidated. The Hospital complex faced the neighboring influences of overcrowded and decaying housing, and streets littered with refuse. Reese trustees began investigating possibilities for the Hospital’s future. With a group of planning experts, they considered whether or not the Hospital would remain at its then present location. They found that remaining on the South Side would only be feasible if they produced a long-range plan for restoring the Hospital and helping rehabilitate the neighborhood itself. They agreed to focus on urban renewal as opposed to moving, and abandoning the neighborhood. 

In 1946, the staff set forth a long-term plan for rebuilding the Hospital and surrounding neighborhood. This plan also involved other institutions, including in part, the Chicago Housing Authority, city and state authorities, and the Illinois Institute of Technology.  Over the next thirty-five years, new Hospital buildings and research facilities spread to the south, including spaces for the Medical Research Foundation, Psychosomatic and Psychiatric Institute, and the Siegal Institute for Communicative Disorders. Research was now a central activity for Reese. Eventually, by 1960, the Hospital had 867 beds, making it Chicago's largest private hospital at the time.

Advancing the Field

Through the 1950’s, Michael Reese’s research community expanded to more than 200 scientists. New laboratories were filled almost as soon as they were built. Several critical advancements in medical research were made during this period. Dr. Albert Milzer’s laboratory was one of the first to prove that penicillin was effective in preventing recurrences of rheumatic fever. He was also behind the mushrooming effort to develop vaccines against viral diseases, including poliomyelitis. In fact, Dr. Milzer and his team were the first to kill polio virus and one of the first to make an effective vaccine.

Among the other major research developments and discoveries attributed to Michael Reese Hospital are:

  • Design and construction of the world’s first medical linear accelerator to beam high-speed electrons at deep-seated cancers
  • Under the leadership of Dr. Leonidas Berry, the Hospital helped pioneer the development and use of the gastroscope to see inside the digestive tract   
  • Discovery that administration of female sex hormones can help prevent heart attack in men
  • Discovery of the secretion of a brain factor which stimulates acid secretion in the stomach, thus psychologically linking emotions and certain gastrointestinal illness
  • Development of a successful intrauterine device (IUD) which slowly releases small amounts of hormone to prevent pregnancy
  • Identification of a genetic condition as a major risk factor in the development of kidney stones
  • Development of mediastinoscopy as a way of looking for cancer inside the chest without the need for major exploratory surgery
  • Discovery that Hodgkins disease spreads along lymph nodes in certain distinct patterns
  • Design and development of one of the first successful artificial shoulder implants

One of Reese’s last successes was the Michael Reese Health Plan (sometimes known as the Michael Reese Health Maintenance Organization). What began in the early 1970’s as a plan created to serve Reese’s own employees, eventually grew to become the largest HMO in the City of Chicago of the time.   

While the Hospital and Medical Center continued to provide quality care, and also advance the field of patient care and medical research, it became increasingly apparent that the City had perhaps more tertiary care hospitals with a full array of comprehensive services than it needed, or at least it could viably support.  As local South Side families that had long been served by the Hospital, many of which had also financially supported the Hospital through charitable giving, began to move to the suburban North Shore and other areas, the Hospital’s finances began to suffer ever more dramatically.  

In 1989, Gordon Prussian, Chairman of Reese’s Board, came to the tentative conclusion that it would be better for the community to focus Michael Reese Hospital’s remaining assets on furthering the advancement of health care and related services in Chicago through establishing a permanent grantmaking foundation focused on health than to preside over the Hospital’s slow demise from continuing and uncontrollable fiscal loses. Reese Chief Counsel, Dan Swett, validated that tentative conclusion to the Board with a detailed financial study.

Finally, in 1991, the Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center, and the Michael Reese Health Plan (the Michael Reese Health Maintenance Organization) were sold to the for-profit firm, Humana. The remaining non-profit assets of the sale, about $60 million dollars, became the corpus of what is now the Michael Reese Health Trust, an independent grantmaking foundation focused on improving the health of Chicago’s most vulnerable populations. Grantmaking began at the Health Trust in the Fall of 1997.