The long and colorful story of Sellwood Hospital
If your last name was Sellwood, and you lived in the Sellwood community a century or more ago, your chances for success in life must have seemed pretty good. Harold E. Sellwood became a successful real estate agent, opening an office at Umatilla and S.E. 13th in the early 1900s. And, earlier than that, the Reverend John Sellwood earned a nice fortune when he sold 320 acres of land in 1882 to prominent businessmen T. A. Wood and William Ladd. They formed the Sellwood Real Estate Company, and in return honored the good Reverend by naming their new town Sellwood. It eventually was annexed by the City of Portland; we've told that story before.
When the 1900s arrived, an energetic young man named John J. Sellwood and his wife decided to settle in the community which he no doubt had heard much about. Gathered around the dinner table, growing up with the Sellwood clan, he probably was given plenty of advice by his elders. Heeding the famed words of Horace Greely, who said, "Go west young man, and grow up with the country" – and taking the advice of his father, David Sellwood, and his uncle John Sellwood – that's exactly what John J. Sellwood did. Except that, since he was raised in Oregon City, the words he heard instead were, "Head north young man" – and he didn't have far to go, before coming across the town of Sellwood.
Fresh off of supervising the construction of a modern sanatorium for invalids during the winter season in the Oregon resort town of Seaside in 1904, John Sellwood returned to Portland with expectations of building a much-needed hospital in Sellwood, close to where he and his wife Mary now lived.
And so he did. The Sellwood Hospital opened its doors for patients in 1909. The 40 by 60 two-story wooden structure included a basement, and enough beds to accommodate about thirty patients. It also offered a training school for nurses. THE BEE at the time congratulated Dr. John J. Sellwood and Dr. R. S. Stearns for bringing a medical center to the working classes in East Portland.
R. S. Stearns, who led the establishment of the Sellwood Commercial Club, and who was dedicated to ensuring the growth of Sellwood, probably helped the most in providing the financial backing to build the hospital.
During the ceremonial opening tour for local residents in May of 1909, Dr. Sellwood showed off the modern conveniences of his new hospital – gas lighting; and the first elevator ever built in Portland on the east side of the Willamette River. Especially important was that it was essentially the first surgical hospital on the east side of the river.
Most people in Southeast Portland at that time had to travel by streetcar to the downtown commercial district of Portland to get quality treatment, or down to Oregon City for acceptable primary care. The Sellwood Hospital was the first of its kind available in East Portland, and it treated everything from scraped elbows and broken bones to cancer, child birth deliveries, and specialized surgery. In 1911, Mrs. E. G. Eaton was one of the first mothers in Southeast Portland to have a Caesarian delivery performed at Sellwood Hospital.
The early 1900s were definitely a different time for medicine and medical procedures. Ambulance service wasn't yet available, so patients in extreme pain had to find someone who could drive them to the local hospital. Most traffic accidents were reported in the newspaper, and on most occasions, one of the involved drivers usually ended up hauling the injured party to the local hospital. That showed a sense of responsibility that you seldom see today.
It wasn't until 1912 that a few Red Cross ambulances could be called, in the event of a serious accident, to deliver an injured person to the nearest hospital – that is, if anyone knew how to reach them with the request. That required finding an available telephone nearby, and relied on a helpful "telephone exchange" operator to make the connection.
Nursing was crucial to a well-run and organized hospital. Nurses not only provided comfort to patients, but performed many other services as well – bathing, bandaging, sterilizing medical instruments, feeding patients, and sometimes laundering the gowns and bedding in the hospital. It was all involved, at the time, in a career as a nurse. In 1912, the Morning Oregonian newspaper reported that Portland only had three nurse training schools – the Good Samaritan, St. Vincent's, and the Sellwood Hospital. Ladies seeking to be nurses had to undergo three years of medical training to earn a diploma. In the following two years, Sellwood celebrated the graduation of five nurses from their own school of nursing.
After graduating, most female nurses were hired as private nurses – often caring for the decrepit and/or elderly parents of elite families. Hospital officials and doctors offered nurses little pay – many hospital nurses were paid mainly in room and board, with perhaps a small stipend for personal expenditures. Maybe that was why, after graduation, the ladies' class of 1914 immediately volunteered their services to the military who were fighting the World War I in Europe, and after being accepted they were on their way overseas, via Mexico.
The final phase of Sellwood Hospital construction was completed in 1914, when a brick addition was built just west of the hospital, enabling 60 more beds to be added – which led to an increase in the number of staff and nurses. A passageway was built to connect both buildings.
Graduating from the Sellwood nurses' training school was a big event for its students, and Dr. Sellwood usually held the commencement in St. John's Episcopal Church – on the same block as the hospital, directly across the street from Sellwood School (now Sellwood Middle School). Soloists sang, commencement speeches were made, and Dr. Sellwood accompanied it all on the church's organ. Many of the doctors who worked in the neighborhood, or in the Sellwood Hospital, were in attendance.
At the 1919 graduation ceremony, Dr. Sellwood was clad in the khaki military uniform that he'd been wearing as a Major in the American Infantry Division in World War I. Each graduating nurse was presented a pin, and seven doctors were also in attendance for the big celebration (it is unclear whether this was simply to celebrate the nurses' graduation themselves, or to be on hand in case someone was overcome by emotion at the ceremony).
In a major innovation for the times, a new dormitory was built on the west side of the hospital buildings to accommodate the twenty nurses-in-training. New students no longer had to worry about finding affordable rooms to rent nearby, or having to travel long distances from their own home for their internship at the hospital.
During the Great War, the hospital dealt with neighborhood injuries, industrial accidents, car wrecks, and of course the delivery of babies. With all the solders overseas, doctors at the Sellwood Hospital didn't have to deal with any wartime casualties – but the infamous Spanish Influenza (which actually originated at a military base in Kansas) became a more dangerous threat. As reported in the Oregonian, William C. Lahti contracted the uniquely fatal flu while attending army training at Reed College; he died in Sellwood Hospital.
However, fortuitously, there weren't any other reports of the hospital struggling with victims of Spanish Influenza. But other Portland hospitals weren't as lucky, and many beds and rooms were filled with patients who had contracted the Spanish Flu. (It appears that a pandemic sweeps the world every hundred years or so; a century from now somebody may write an historical article about what our current pandemic was like here in Inner Southeast Portland, using THE BEE as a source.)
While Dr. Sellwood was away offering his services as a medical officer in the Great War, Dr. H. J. Besson had taken over direction of the Sellwood Hospital. Besides performing surgeries and waiting on patients, Dr. Besson's favorite pastime was outdoor sports. He was talented enough to be a starting pitcher for the Multnomah Baseball Club, one of Portland's local ball teams. During one of their games, Homer Jamison, coach of Jefferson High School, broke his ankle while fielding a ground ball. After the game, Dr. Besson drove Jamison to Sellwood Hospital, where he set the fracture, and afterward drove the patient back to his home in North Portland.
Dr. Besson was present when one of Westmoreland's premiere residents, William S. Sibson, was admitted to the hospital for a complaint of some kind. Sibson was nationally known as a rose culturist; his 20-acre Sibson Rose Gardens were located just east of 17th Avenue between S.E. Knight and Reedway Streets. Sibson later sold his flower business to John G. Holden, and the property became known as the Holden Green Houses – later, they were cleared for residential development. Those who now own a house in Westmoreland near Reedway and Knight might have flowers and roses in their yards that once were a part of the original Sibson Flower orchard.
Rambunctious boys and girls who fell off their bicycles, or were hurt horsing around on the school playground, sometimes ended up at the Sellwood Hospital. There a cast could be applied to a leg or arm that was broken. One such incident involved Jack Baumgardner, who dislocated his shoulder while (apparently vigorously) setting pins at the Portland Bowling Alley; and another involved Miss Edna Hinderlie, who had been teaching new students the perfect golf swing at the Eastmoreland Golf Course. She was treated for a split lip when one of the students she was teaching failed to master the perfect swing, and hit her in the face.
Some patients expired at the hospital – such as John Sellwood's own mother, Belle J. Sellwood, who passed away there after being lovingly cared for by her son and the Sellwood nurses. She lived to be 68 years old. Her funeral was held at St. John's Episcopal Church of Sellwood, where John had performed so many concerts, and had played the organ for services on Sunday – and now, he took the opportunity to play some of her favorite melodies as a final tribute to her.
In 1922, Dr. Sellwood was again busy updating and expanding his hospital, successfully petitioning the Portland City Council to provide him with $50,000 for improvements. Private patient rooms were rearranged and relocated on the first floor, and surgical and x-ray departments were relocated to the second floor.
Two surgery facilities, along with doctors' quarters and a dressing room, rounded out the modifications. The capacity of the hospital increased from 62 to 114 beds. Also, a new heating plant was built, and a new electric elevator was installed (we are unsure how the previously non-electric elevator operated), while electric lights were installed to replace the outdated gas light system, which had been the source of indoor lighting there until 1922.
When the well-remembered Dr. W. Donald Nickelsen became a part of the staff of the Sellwood Hospital, little did Sellwood residents know he would become a memorable character in the neighborhood.
Dr. Nickelsen received his medical degree from Rush Medical College in Chicago, Illinois, and graduated from the New York Skin and Cancer College in 1919. Few doctors were trained in the field of cancer at that time, and so he was an asset to the community on that score – but Dr. Nickelsen became known even more for his African adventures than for medical procedures.
During his free time, Nickelsen liked to hunt big game, on safari in Africa; and many people who lived near his house were regularly invited over to view his trophies after he returned. The walls in his house were adorned with trophy mounted heads of wild springbok and gemsbok, and he reportedly had an elephant's foot that was used as an end table. His living room was decorated with extensive African tribesmen's garb, and weapons were set about the room. But most of the children who passed by the hospital will mainly remember the live cheetah that was kept caged inside a chain-link fence at the back of Dr. John Sellwood's former office, which Nickelsen was now using. The doctors' office was located at the corner of 13th and Harney, close to Sellwood School.
Young boys would often challenge their peers, or double-dare each other, to stick their fingers through the chain links to pet the Cheetah. Those living here at that time will certainly remember Dr. Nickelsen driving his convertible through the streets of Westmoreland and Sellwood with his pet cheetah, Chewie, sitting in the back seat.
As Dr. John Sellwood started to age, and to feel the strain of his busy schedule, Dr. Nickelsen stepped up to buy the hospital from him – a transaction that took place on May 22nd, 1931. Nikelsen planned on opening a laboratory to study and treat cancer patients; he renamed it the Portland General Hospital. When Dr. Nickelsen died on October 23rd, 1963, a group of Sellwood-Westmoreland citizens attempted to set up a nonprofit corporation to keep their hospital in the neighborhood – but when they ran into financial trouble, they asked associates of the Woodland Park Hospital to step in and take over the business.
Dr. Sellwood, who had practiced medicine for over 45 years, passed away 13 years later. The nursing school he started had been closed for several years; and the St. John's Episcopal Church he'd supported, and where he played the organ, was torn down. His famous organ is now on the Oregon coast, in Astoria – and a history of that musical instrument can be found in Eileen Fitzsimons' article, "Dr. Sellwood's Organ: The Melody Lingers On", in the December, 2012, issue of THE BEE.
By 1970, the old Sellwood Hospital structures had to be replaced, and a new building replaced them, called the City of Roses Hospital. Architect Don Byer built it with two surgery units, a closed circuit TV system (which was considered high tech for its time), a gift shop, four intensive care units, and a coronary care unit.
By the 1980s the hospital was again having problems staying afloat, and its executive staff wanted to turn it into a mental hospital, which was then called the Woodland Park Mental Health Center. After serving as a psychiatric treatment center for many years, as the Pacific Gateway Hospital, local residents became uncomfortable having a mental hospital so close to Sellwood Middle School, and the clinic was closed for good and demolished in 2003.
What was once the only neighborhood hospital in Inner Southeast Portland is now a long row of luxury townhouses across the street to the west from the front entrance of Sellwood Middle School; and the only vestige remaining of the prominent surgeon John Sellwood is today's Sellwood Medical Clinic, at the corner of S.E. Harney and 13th, where once he lived.
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