Written by Dutch-born playwright and author JAN DE HARTOG and published in 1964, The Hospital exposed the horrible conditions at Jefferson Davis Hospital in Houston’s Fourth Ward. In 1962, de Hartog and his wife Marjorie settled in Houston. Shortly after their arrival, the de Hartogs learned from acquaintances that help was needed to feed the newborns at Jefferson Davis Hospital. Because of a staffing shortage, hours would sometimes go by before the babies were fed.
The de Hartogs, who were Quakers, volunteered at the hospital. Jan de Hartog worked as an orderly in the emergency room. What he saw stunned him. Eight months into their work, de Hartog exposed what he called a “monument of misery” at the hospital in a letter published on April 21, 1963, in the Houston Chronicle. He described a facility where “the floors are slippery with blood and vomit” and malfunctioning beds were “propped up with chairs under the mattresses and held together with surgical tape.” De Hartog felt compelled to write the letter about the hospital’s conditions after Houston city councilman Frank Mann suggested a cut in the hospital’s budget.
Houstonians both commended and criticized de Hartog for making his findings public. Those siding with him contrasted elected leaders’ treatment of the hospital system with their support for the Astrodome. Former Chronicle editor M. E. Walter challenged de Hartog’s assessment of conditions at Jefferson Davis and noted its “splendid record over the country for curing the sick….”
De Hartog followed up on his letter by challenging Harris County residents to contribute funding to augment nursing services at the new city/county-run hospital Ben Taub General Hospital, and he pledged $10,000 of his own money. Though the move fell short of its $60,000 goal, residents, aided by the de Hartogs and their fellow Quaker friends, mobilized to provide volunteer services at Ben Taub as trained orderlies and nurses’ aides.
De Hartog’s experiences at both hospitals garnered national attention after he published The Hospital in October 1964. In the book, de Hartog described in greater detail the conditions at Jefferson Davis, including a patient who died of suffocation because a tracheotomy tube was not cleaned in a timely manner, the result of staffing shortages. De Hartog also wrote of a nurse removing a cockroach from a child’s tracheotomy tube.
Proceeds from the book went to the nurses’ aide training program. The book helped renew calls for the Harris County Commissioners to order an election to create a hospital district. In early 1965, voters had their say on the matter, but the measure was defeated. Disappointed, de Hartog again asked residents to volunteer their time at the hospitals. On November 20, 1965, county residents finally approved the creation of a hospital district to oversee operations of Jefferson Davis and Ben Taub hospitals, the fifth time the measure had gone to voters.
Reprinted from the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Houston, a project in cooperation with the Houston History Alliance. For more information,