The Public Health Pioneer Who Founded Oakland's First Children's Hospital

It's hard to imagine now, but when Children's Hospital Oakland first opened in 1914, it was positively ramshackle. Its 38 beds were housed in a decaying old mansion, as well as a small cottage for contagious patients. Its clinic was operated out of a disused donkey stable and its treatment room was in an abandoned harness shed.

Such conditions show how desperately the hospital was needed (it was the first of its kind on the Pacific Coast). But they're also a testament to the determination of its co-founders, Mabel Weed and Bertha Wright.

Bertha Wright was a tireless fighter for public health who was accustomed to getting care to the needy by any means necessary. Wright was born in Piedmont, the middle child of three. In 1901, at the age of 25, she graduated from the California Women's Hospital School of Nursing in San Francisco. She went on to work both there and at the Nurses’ Potrero Settlement House, where she served a large population of struggling immigrants.

After the 1906 earthquake, Wright tended to the sick and wounded in an improvised tent city in Golden Gate Park. Later, inspired by her schoolteacher sister (Alice Bowman "Ada" Wright), she became the first-ever school nurse in Alameda County.

In 1907, as the Bay Area struggled to rebuild after the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires, community groups and a variety of charities banded together to form the Charitable Organization Society in Berkeley. Wright was appointed Home Secretary, a title that encompassed three separate roles: administrator, social worker and public health nurse. (Alameda County's very first, in fact.) Wright is said to have made over 600 home visits on her trusty horse and buggy.

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In 1908, Wright joined forces with an influential group of Berkeley women—including reporter Jessie Marsh, Molly Lawrence (one of the first women to study at Harvard Medical School) and Gertrude Strong—to open the Berkeley Day Nursery. It was California's first publicly subsidized daycare center. Prior to its opening, working women were forced to leave their children at local orphan asylums while they did their jobs.

Tracing Wright's achievements in the Bay Area healthcare field is an almost comedic exercise, simply because she was an incredible overachiever. In addition her instrumental role in the planning and direction of the Berkeley Day Hospital and the Berkeley Clinic (with special attention paid to treating low-income families), she also taught public health nursing at UC Berkeley.

In the course of performing all of these duties, Wright came to understand the desperate need for a hospital dedicated to the care of babies and children. Perhaps even more importantly, Wright didn't want infants to suffer due to the financial hardships of their parents. As such, the Children's Hospital charged families just $1 for enrollment in a plan to cover all of their child's health needs. Still, Wright was careful to assert that "No child will be refused care because its parents are unable to pay the dollar."

Once the Children's Hospital was up and running, Wright also took the opportunity to educate new mothers, holding prenatal clinics and baby hygiene classes at the clinic. She also helped organize the first "baby saving fairs" on the West Coast.

It was during her work with the Charitable Organization Society that Wright's relationship with social worker Mabel Weed (then secretary of the organization) grew closer. It's unclear when the women first moved in together, but the couple raised three children (Weed adopted Philip in 1915, Alice in 1916 and Jean in 1923), along with a number of foster children.

The 1940 census shows that, even when Weed was 68 and Wright was 62, they were still fostering (by that time, in Palo Alto). According to one of their charges, John Ginno Aronovici, Wright continued fostering children even after Weed's death in 1957. Wright passed away in 1971 just one month shy of her 95th birthday.

It's clear from both her work and personal history that Bertha Wright was blessed with an uncommon drive and an unconventional approach to life. She is also said to have been rather imposing—some reports claim she could stop people in their tracks with a single look.

Perhaps Wright's uniqueness can be attributed to what American Nursing: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume 3 describes as "her circle of progressive feminist women friends," as well as her "bold and adventurous family of eccentrics and inventors. A family that never said ‘What will people think?’"

Regardless, the impact of Wright's extraordinary efforts in Bay Area healthcare continue to be felt. Today, Children’s Hospital Oakland has trained over 1,000 pediatricians, and is one of only seven pediatric hospitals in America to earn a "top performer" designation from the Joint Commission. In addition, the Bertha Wright Society continues to raise money for the hospital and research center. Even in her own time, she was directly credited for the significant drop in the Bay Area's infant mortality rate between 1914 and 1916.

In the end, Bertha Wright should be remembered as a champion for children, women and all those living on the margins. The number of lives she saved—and helped to bring into the world—is unfathomable.

For stories on other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, click here