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Hamptons Life

Exhibits, book celebrate Southampton Hospital centennial

Publication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press
By Brendan O'Reilly   May 13, 2009 12:51 PM

Southampton’s quintessential country doctor, George Schenck, and his colleague, distinguished New York City physician Joseph Wheelwright, answered a house call one night in 1908 that would change health care on the South Fork forever.

Drs. Schenck and Wheelwright arrived at a Southampton home to find a patient in such dire need of emergency care that they had no time to take her to the nearest hospital—in Greenport. So, in a small attic room, the doctors performed surgery by the light of a kerosene lantern.

The doctors managed to save the patient’s life, but the experience made one thing painfully clear: the South Fork needed a hospital of its own. That realization sparked the genesis of what would become Southampton Hospital, which is celebrating its centennial this year.

Among a host of celebrations and observances, the hospital and the community are marking the occasion with an exhibition at the hospital and a sister exhibition at the Southampton Historical Museum, “100 Years of Healing: Southampton Hospital 1909-2009,” which opens with a reception this Saturday, May 16.

“It’s an invitation for everyone to come out and see the story of the hospital,” said Tom Edmonds, the museum’s executive director.

The story of the hospital is actually a story about the community it serves, because throughout the institution’s history, it has been the community that has driven the growth of the hospital, said Marsha Kenny, the director of marketing and public affairs at Southampton Hospital. “I think that’s the most important message at this centennial, and it’s still the case,” she said.

Complementing both exhibitions is “100 Years of Healing,” a book authored by Mary Cummings, manager of the research center at the historical museum and the curator of both shows. The books arrived from the printer on Monday, the culmination of a year of intense labor for the writer.

To piece together the detailed 
history, Ms. Cummings pored through the hospital archives for photographs and records that could tell Southampton Hospital’s story.

A lot of information was gleaned from the hospital’s annual reports, dating all the way back to 1911. “A couple of them are missing, but most of them are there,” Ms. Cummings said on Monday at the museum’s Rogers Mansion on Meetinghouse Lane, where the exhibition was being assembled.

The writer turned curator said her work was not without some lighter moments and laughter, as when she compared some of the hospital’s earliest reports, detailing every time someone got a fishhook stuck in his calf or swallowed a stone, to the sophisticated and opaquely technical modern reports.

The annual reports also revealed to her who was on the medical staff in a given year and who served on the hospital’s board of directors. Photographs of many key figures in the hospital’s history will hang in the Rogers Mansion until Labor Day.

Jeffrey Thayer co-curated the museum’s exhibition with Ms. Cummings, and Rick Stott and Diana Pepi Stott designed the display at the hospital that will open on June 1.

Ms. Kenny said the centennial exhibition at the hospital will be left up indefinitely and may become permanent.

Though the hospital had many photographs to choose from for the exhibition and records to draw on for context, other material was scarce.

“It was very hard finding actual objects,” Ms. Kenny said. She said the hospital turned for help to the staff and former staffers, many of whom, she discovered, were born at the hospital.

Some staff members brought in the hospital bills their parents had received when they were born.

Alumnae of the hospital’s now defunct nursing school were also a valuable resource, both for oral history and because they still had such items as their old yearbooks to lend, Ms. Kenny said. The nursing school opened in 1924 and was shuttered more than 40 years ago, in 1968.

Among the historic objects in the museum exhibition is Charlotte Lillywhite’s nursing uniform. Ms. Lillywhite—of the same Lillywhite family that ran the sporting goods and then toy store in Southampton until 2001—presided over the hospital when it operated in two rented rooms at a Hampton Road boarding house.

There is also an early ophthalmic sonogram machine, which resembles a 1950s television set, that was designed at Southampton Hospital.

Some of the objects came out of the museum’s own collection, like glass medicine bottles and old pill boxes. There is even a human skull, which was found in the Captain George White house, a historic home in Southampton bequeathed to the museum in 2007.

The skull sits on an antique pediatrician’s desk the museum also recently acquired.

The exhibition has an interactive element as well.

“We have asked everyone who was born in Southampton Hospital to bring in a baby photo,” Ms. Cummings said.

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