The French Benevolent Society established the first private hospital in San Francisco in 1851, known as the French Hospital. The Catholic Church sent a group of Irish nuns in 1854 who would eventually found the Sisters of Mercy, later known as St. Mary’s. Many immigrants to San Francisco have found comfort in receiving care that is consistent with their cultural or religious values ​​and delivered in their native language.

There was a public hospital, but obviously the care there was terrible and the corruption rampant. So many other ethnic and religious institutions opened in the 1880s and 1990s when people realized how bad public care was.

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The city’s first hospitals may have started as a stopgap measure to care for those without families, but they soon became places that cared mainly for the poor. It became prudent for newly wealthy San Franciscans to donate money to society or the benevolent church in their home country to show off their social status.

“Jews have a unique experience here,” said Judi Leff, a teacher and historian for San Francisco’s Jewish community. The first Jewish people to immigrate to San Francisco were from Bavaria, Germany. They experienced religious discrimination in Europe, where they had few professional or social opportunities and were limited to earning a living as traders, street vendors and money lenders. They came to California, like so many others, for better opportunities.

“What they find is that these miners have a lot of needs,” Leff said.

The mining industry sprung up almost overnight. The men who worked in the mining camps in the hills needed food, supplies and tools. The Jewish arrivals were about to start successful businesses.

“The very things they’re limited to in Europe allow them to be successful here in California pretty quickly,” Leff said.

Think of Levi Strauss providing clothes to miners.

And, because San Francisco was a young, rapidly growing city, the Jewish community did not experience the same level of religious discrimination as in Eastern cities like New York and Boston. It helped that they were perceived as white and therefore did not face the racial prejudice that non-white groups, such as the Chinese, endured.

“You don’t have a lot of religion and you don’t have a lot of laws,” Leff said. “So yeah, it’s just like, ‘Can you do the job or can you help us do the job? Great.'”

Once established, the Jewish community began to give back to the city that had given them so many opportunities. Look around San Francisco today and you’ll see the legacy of Jewish philanthropy throughout the city, including the Fleishhacker Zoo and Pool, Stern Grove, the California Academy of Sciences’ Steinhart Aquarium, and Hellman Hollow. in Golden Gate Park.

“They also want the reputation of the Jewish community to be held in high esteem,” Leff said. “It’s very important for the Jews because it’s a new experience for them to be in San Francisco and to be so well regarded. They want to keep up appearances.”

The Mount Zion Hospital Foundation

The first priorities of the Jewish community upon arriving in San Francisco were to meet the specific needs of their community. They established kosher food sources, built synagogues to pray in, raised funds to support widows and orphans, and held religiously appropriate funeral services. But in 1887, they turned their attention to health care. The story goes that a prominent Jewish businessman, Frederick Castle, had recently lost his son to smallpox at the poorly run county hospital.

“And something like 43 Jews get together and they decide there’s going to be a hospital, but it’s going to be non-sectarian,” Leff said.

Mount Zion Hospital circa 1931. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

The Jewish community has had a debate over whether the new hospital should serve only California’s Jewish population, but ultimately influential rabbis like Jacob Voorsanger of Temple Emanu-El, Jacob Nieto of Sherith Israel, and Myer S. Levy of Neth Israel prevailed. They argued that a hospital that served San Franciscans of all faiths would be a better tribute to the city. Mount Zion Hospital opened in 1897 with only 12 beds.

Rather quickly, the Mount Zion Hospital Association realized that it needed to train nurses to help provide better and more consistent care. When the UCSF School of Medicine wanted to partner with Mount Zion to become a teaching hospital in the 1920s, it was a natural fit. Over time, as the medical school became established, it took over Mount Zion Hospital entirely.

In the foreground, three empty hospital beds are lined up against a wall.  Near the last bed is a nurse in an old-fashioned uniform
A nurse working in the Mount Zion Maternity Hospital circa 1952. This photo was used as part of a feature promoting more modern hospitals like Mount Zion. (Courtesy San Francisco Center for History/San Francisco Public Library)

Chinese hospital is another reason for ethnic hospitals

While hospitals affiliated with European ethnic groups flourished and new immigrants created wealth and power by becoming benefactors, the same was not true for the Chinese community, which also came to San Francisco during the food rush. ‘gold. Chinese miners have faced severe racism in mining camps and in communities across California. When they fell ill, most hospitals refused to treat them. To make matters worse, many white San Franciscans have falsely accused the Chinese population of spreading the disease.

Chinese community leaders repeatedly petitioned the city for better health care and were denied. Finally, members of six leading benevolent Chinese societies, collectively known as the Six Companies, raised enough money to build. But before they could do so, white people living near the proposed Portola site mounted a campaign to stop the project, using racist arguments that the presence of a Chinese hospital near their homes would drive down property values.

The supervisory board sided with the white neighbors and the planned hospital for Portola was never built. Instead, the Tung Wah Dispensary – a clinic, not a hospital – opened in Chinatown in 1900. It was a precursor to the Chinese hospital, was staffed by Christian missionaries, and pioneered a blend of Eastern and Western medical practices. Only six years later, the dispensary burned down in the earthquake and fire of 1906, and the community had to start fundraising again. This time they would take nothing less than a modern hospital.

The country’s first Chinese hospital opened in San Francisco in 1925 with 60 beds. The community raised funds from across the country and around the world. The celebrations lasted 11 days and included a festival queen, a parade and a ball.

Black and white posed photo of a neatly put together 1920s Asian woman. She has a wave in her hair and is wearing a long sleeved white shirt.
Lena Leong was elected Chinese Hospital Carnival Queen in 1925. At age 17, she was the first Chinese Festival Queen in the United States. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

What happened to ethnically affiliated hospitals?

Providing care to the poor has always been an expensive proposition. Many of San Francisco’s early hospitals struggled to cover their costs, developing elaborate fundraising programs to keep the money coming in. Each local hospital with ethnic or religious roots has its own unique story of how it lost its focus, but some broader trends also played a role.

World events like World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic meant that many more people needed medical attention at the same time. There was not enough existing hospital space, and cities like San Francisco had to scramble to convert gymnasiums and churches into care facilities.

Meanwhile, as more and more hospitals partnered with medical schools, the hospital as an institution became more prestigious.

These developments have led cities to take an interest in financing hospitals. It became a point of civic pride to have a world-class hospital, and it made more sense to take over existing hospitals than to build new ones. Over time, municipalities began to outsource their hospital services to private companies because it was cheaper. And finally, that’s why Old French Hospital is part of Kaiser, Old German Hospital is part of Sutter Health, Mount Zion is part of UCSF, and St. Mary’s is part of Dignity Health.

Chinese hospital remains

The ground floor of an elegant and modern hospital.  The emergency room can be seen in letters ready above a door
China Hospital opened a new, modern facility in 2016 on the site of the 1925 building. It still serves the Chinatown community, but also has clinics in other parts of the city. (HaeB/Wikimedia Commons)

The Chinese Hospital is the only ethnically-oriented hospital that continues to operate independently in San Francisco. This is largely because much of the racism and exclusion that spurred its development is still pervasive.

Dr Jian Zhang, CEO of the Chinese hospital, said several of its employees had been physically and verbally abused since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Some people blame San Francisco’s Chinese community for bringing the disease to the United States and spreading it, a disturbing reminder of the exact same justification used by white San Franciscans against the Chinese community in the 1800s.

Rising anti-Asian hatred angers Zhang, but she tries to stay focused on the important role the Chinese hospital plays in the community.

“We still have a lot of monolingual immigrants and low-income people living in Chinatown,” Zhang said. The hospital now has satellite clinics outside of Chinatown and serves people throughout the Bay Area, but their mission still stands: to provide culturally appropriate care to the community.

“Think about it – you can walk in and talk to a vendor who can speak your language and understand your culture,” Zhang said. “It makes a huge difference. That’s what a lot of patients have told me, and a lot of doctors have told me too.”

The longevity of the Chinese hospital has made it a point of pride in the community. Even low-income patients donated money to the hospital’s fundraising campaign. And they also treat it as their own. Before the coronavirus pandemic changed the rules, many people living in the community brought their breakfast and newspapers and read in the hospital lobby.

“It’s a community place for them. That’s for sure,” Zhang said.