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TB Spawned innovative forerunner to University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview- Riverside

Dorothy, Lillian, and Hillmar Evanson c1911-13, based on Lillian’s estimated age.  Hillmar died from TB in 1913 at age 29 and Dorothy in 1915 at age 26.  They and 99 others were hospitalized at Thomas Hospital and buried at Layman’s Cemetery [now Pioneer’s and Soldiers Cemetery].

Dorothy, Lillian, and Hillmar Evanson c1911-13, based on Lillian’s estimated age. Hillmar died from TB in 1913 at age 29 and Dorothy in 1915 at age 26. They and 99 others were hospitalized at Thomas Hospital and buried at Layman’s Cemetery [now Pioneer’s and Soldiers Cemetery].

Hilmar and Dorothy were only two of 101 people buried in the cemetery who died at Thomas Hospital between 1908 and 1917.  Undoubtedly, many more who were not buried in Layman’s Cemetery died there during those years and in the years between 1917 and the hospital’s closing in 1929.  Tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in Minnesota, and in 1910 approximately 2,500 Minnesotans died from the disease commonly known as the “white plague.”

Thomas Hospital was a project of the United Church Hospital Association whose membership was primarily composed of Norwegian Lutherans.  For $1 a year, members could vote on the UCHA’s board, and anyone who donated $25 was entitled to a lifetime membership in the organization.  Norwegian Lutherans were not the only ones who had a stake in trying to eradicate tuberculosis and a number of organizations, some secular, some representing other religious denominations, provided considerable financial support.

Individual and group donations were not enough to build a new hospital.  George Christian, a milling magnate, contributed $50,000 of the $75,000 construction cost in honor of his friend, Bishop Elisha Smith Thomas. Christian and his wife, Leonora, knew that, although tuberculosis was particularly prevalent in working-class families, the wealthy were not immune.  Their son, Henry, died from tuberculosis in 1905.

Just before the hospital opened in October 1908, the board of Thomas Hospital and its Ladies Auxiliary held a carnival to raise funds to furnish the hospital.  For five nights, they held open houses, complete with brass bands and, according to the Minneapolis Tribune, a “dozen dainty girls, attired in Norwegian costume, [serving] Norwegian food to hungry folks.”  Antiques and bric-a-brac were for sale.  The price of admission was ten cents.  The money was used to buy beds for the patients and furniture for the nurses’ residence.

Thomas Hospital was built to treat consumptives who were able to pay for their care but it soon became clear that there was a great, if not greater, need to treat those who were unable to bear the cost of their own treatments.  Organizations as well as wealthy patrons sponsored “free” beds for the poor at a cost of $400 a year.  In 1906 two beds were designated charity beds but in a matter of a few years that number increased to 20, roughly 25% of the hospital’s capacity.

Hospital officials were reluctant to disclose the number of people who died there.  There can be little question that the number was high.  Although it was not called a hospice, hospital beds were reserved for patients suffering from the most advanced stages of tuberculosis.  Despite excellent nursing care and the most advanced treatment available, most of those admitted were already beyond hope.  One of the hospital’s main goals was to prevent tuberculosis, this “menace to the health of the community,” from spreading.

The people who died at the Thomas Hospital and who are buried in Layman’s were young by today’s standards and in many ways were similar to the casualties of the pandemic of 1918.  Of the 101 deaths, the majority were young adults, 70 men and women who were between the ages of 20 and 40.  Another 11 were between the ages of 40 and 45.  There were four teenagers, a few elderly and a handful whose ages were not known.

Although Layman’s Cemetery closed to future burials in 1919, the work done at Thomas Hospital continued on until 1929 when the building was converted to a residence hall for nurses and administrative staff at Fairview Hospital.  Tuberculosis patients were treated at the newly opened Glen Lake Sanatorium.  In 2013 tuberculosis was not listed among the 15 leading causes of death in the United States

The Alley Newspaper’s last cemetery ‘Tale” [Vol. 38 #12 December, 2013, page 3] was a story about a Norwegian language Bible that belonged to Rachel Kleppe.  Inside of the Bible there was a letter containing the location of Hilmar Evenson’s grave in Layman’s Cemetery.  Hilmar was Rachel’s older brother.

Hilmar died on November 7, 1913, at the age of 29.  Two years later, his wife, Dorothy died; she was 26.  

Shortly after the story went to press [December 2013], Tim McCall, one of Friends of the Cemetery’s most amazing volunteers, found a photo of Hilmar, Dorothy and their daughter Lillian.  Bit by bit Hilmar’s (and now Dorothy’s) story is coming together.

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