It started with the soldiers at Camp Logan, an army training base then on the far western edge of Houston now known as Memorial Park. For with thousands of young men confined in a relatively small area, the virus quickly spread across the camp with some 3,091 cases in just two months, even as it was beginning to claim as many as 100 million lives worldwide.
And for one physician, Oscar Norsworthy, it was all simply overwhelming. For the small private hospital near downtown that he had founded ten years earlier had only thirty beds. When the Spanish Flu struck the city in 1918, patients subsequently doubled up not only in those beds, but in makeshift spaces in the hallway and even on the roof. It was not surprising then that after the crisis began to abate, completely worn out and spent, Dr. Norsworthy decided it was time to leave Houston and go pursue additional training in the therapeutic effects of a newly discovered element, radium.
The good doctor, however, first had to find a buyer for his hospital, someone he could trust to maintain the high ethical standards he had lived by. And the obvious candidate was to turn to people of his own faith, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. In the last month of 1919, thus, Oscar Norsworthy and his wife made a generous offer indeed to local Methodists. Though his property, building, and medical equipment were valued at $87,000, in fact, he sold it to the church for only $35,000 on the condition that they expand the hospital with a new building to be ready for the next great pandemic.
The initial members of the board for the hospital read like a Houston Who’s Who, including Walter Fondren (a founder of Humble Oil, now Exxon Mobil), James A. Elkins (a leading attorney with his partner William Vinson), Jim West (a rancher and oilman), and Jesse Jones (newspaper publisher, banker, and a later U.S. cabinet member), among the list. But the support for the hospital came as well from Methodists of far more modest means all across East Texas.
Today, of course, Houston Methodist Hospital is a leading voice in offering incredible medical care to patients, with eight area hospitals now in the system welcoming more than 115,000 patients from around the world each year. There are almost seven thousand physicians on staff, with over $141 million in annual research expenditures and more than 1.3 million patient encounters.
Significantly enough, however, nursed in a pandemic more than a century ago, it has stepped up to continue to serve the present age in this new time of global outbreak, as well. For in the end, the calling to heal the sick remains part and parcel of who we are as followers of the Great Physician.
God still “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds,” as Psalm 147 reminds us. And as a lifelong Methodist, I’m grateful indeed for all that has come out of Oscar Norsworthy’s efforts so long ago.
He really did create a hospital with a soul.