Today, Tampa prides itself in offering everyone premier health care options, but it wasn’t always this way. The availability of health care during modern Tampa’s early years (1880s to 1920s) varied vastly depending on who you were, rather than what your health care needs were. White, Black and Latino men and women saw deeply differing levels of care, and financial and social status could make a difference between getting treated or getting sent home. Added to this was the fact that technology and medical knowledge were in their infancies.
Tampa’s first hospital started in 1892 as more of an emergency clinic. Aptly named the Emergency Hospital, it was located in a converted two-story house at 908 Lafayette St. on the eastern end of town. The hospital, restricted to white patients and operated and sponsored by volunteers, could only accommodate five patients at a time, which did not change during its 18-year existence, despite the fact that the city’s population grew from roughly 7,000 people when the hospital opened to over 37,000 when it was replaced in 1910. This is contrasted with both the Centro Asturiano and the Centro Español, two mutual aid societies that operated medical clinics – including the Centro Español Sanitarium on Bayshore Boulevard.
The Tampa Bay Infirmary, originally located on Franklin Street and later at the Tampa Bay Hotel (now the University of Tampa) opened in 1906 as another option for white patients. For women’s medical needs, there was the Women’s Home and Hospital at 105 West Ross Ave. These institutions were small and offered limited care. Like the Emergency Hospital, the Women’s Hospital was housed in a two-story home, while the Tampa Bay Infirmary, though built as a medical clinic, was too small for Tampa’s growing population.
Tampa’s Black community could not take advantage of these institutions, instead relying on a few local Black doctors or occasionally a white doctor willing to cross the rigorous color line of the times. It wasn’t until the early 1910s when Tampa’s Black community gained access to regular medical care, thanks in part to African American nurse Clara Frye opening her home to everyone in need, regardless of race, with the help of a white doctor.
In 1910, the 32-bed Gordon Keller Memorial Hospital opened at 306 North Blvd., adjacent to the Tampa Bay Infirmary on the grounds of the Tampa Bay Hotel. The facility was named in honor of Tampa businessman and city treasurer Gordon Keller, who died unexpectedly in 1909. Funds for the hospital were raised in part by Keller’s friends and admirers eager to memorialize Keller’s contributions to the community. In addition to private funds, the City of Tampa contributed annually to the hospital’s general operating fund.
Unprecedented population growth in the early 1920s taxed the small Hyde Park hospital. Some of that pressure was alleviated by the Bayside Hospital, which opened on the south end of Bayshore Boulevard in 1919. Like the Emergency Hospital and Women’s Hospital before it, Bayside was originally a house – the notable Bigelow Mansion.
The city initially wanted to expand Gordon Keller Memorial’s existing North Boulevard facility, but the idea proved impractical and the search for a new hospital site began. A site committee suggested building on Davis Islands, using a portion of the land from Marjorie Park deeded to the city by Davis.
Tampa General Hospital (TGH), now in its 95th year of serving the community, is among the oldest hospitals on Florida’s West Coast. Originally known as Tampa Municipal Hospital, TGH never appeared in the original plans for Davis Islands, nor did it originally appear in the wildest imagination of Davis Islands creator David Paul Davis.
Of course, there is a story related to the hospital’s location on Davis Islands. While playing golf at Palma Ceia Country Club with J. Brown Farrior and James Swann, Davis asked Farrior, a doctor, where he wanted the new hospital. Davis drew a rough outline of the islands in a sand trap and Farrior pointed to the northern tip as the preferred location. Whether the story is true or not, Farrior headed the construction committee and Swann served as chairman of the new hospital’s board of directors.
One hurdle still existed – the proposed location in Marjorie Park sat under water. Davis promised to have the land available as soon as possible and in 1926 construction began on the modern, 250-bed facility. The Gordon Keller Nursing School, which was a part of Keller Memorial Hospital, moved to Davis Islands and opened with the new hospital in 1927.
Continuing the celebration of Keller’s life, the archway over the new hospital’s entrance read “Tampa Municipal Hospital Memorial to Gordon Keller.” That inscription and most of the original Tampa Memorial Hospital building are obscured by the prominent additions made to it from 1958 through the 2000s.
For many years, Tampa Municipal Hospital dominated the landscape of Davis Islands. The Gordon Keller School expanded in 1936, constructing a new home next to the hospital, further increasing the hospital’s educational role. In 1937, Tampa Municipal was one of two hospitals in the nation using electroshock therapy. The hospital was ready to grow, but it needed another spark.
World War II brought that spark with significant advances in the practice of medicine manifesting locally in Tampa Municipal Hospital and its capacity as a teaching facility. An internship program started during the war produced the next generation of Tampa physicians. In 1956, Tampa Municipal Hospital was renamed Tampa General Hospital. By the following decade, Tampa General began to open its doors to Tampa’s Black community, ending years of discrimination and unequal health care.
Though considered a world-class hospital, Tampa General is not without its challenges. It seems no one gave careful consideration to the piece of land the new hospital occupied, aside from the fact that the city already owned it. The location on an island accessible by only one bridge initially (two at present) would prove to be vulnerable during hurricane season, with evacuations not uncommon. Finally, after Tampa’s close encounter with Hurricane Elena in 1985, the hospital’s main generator was moved from the basement to a higher, safer location. At present, the hospital can withstand seemingly the strongest of storms. Yet the risk remains of Davis Islands’ bridges washing out, thereby isolating the hospital from the rest of the city.
Today’s Tampa General is a modern, 1,041-bed facility, with 54 surgical suites and 8,000 employees. Over 50,000 patients are admitted and over 6,000 babies are born there every year. In addition, the emergency room handles over 97,000 adult patients annually. Though not originally intended for Davis Islands, Tampa General Hospital has become a major force throughout the Tampa area.
Rodney Kite-Powell is a Tampa-born author, the official historian of Hillsborough County and the director of the Touchton Map Library at the Tampa Bay History Center, where he has worked since 1995.