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Brief Biographical / Historical Sketch

Biography/History

Western Pennsylvania Hospital

The Western Pennsylvania Hospital was incorporated in 1848 following three years of organizational meetings of Pittsburgh area citizens who were interested in establishing a facility to provide health care “for the reception and relief of lunatics, and the infirm, helpless, and sick poor…” (Wilson, page 9). It was the first public hospital chartered in Pittsburgh. Buildings were constructed on land donated by George Croghan and Harmar Denny in Pittsburgh’s Ninth Ward (today’s Polish Hill neighborhood). The hospital admitted its first patients in March 1853. During the early years, both patients with mental and physical illnesses were treated in the same facility. In 1862, the Department of the Insane was transferred to a newly constructed facility located in Kilbuck Township and became known as Dixmont.

Not only did the Western Pennsylvania Hospital manage these two health care facilities, they were also responsible for the management of a philanthropic program, known as the "Brewer Fuel Fund." Charles Brewer came to Pittsburgh in 1817 and became a wealthy merchant before his death in 1860. In his will he provided funds to support many institutions in Pennsylvania. He also created a fund “ . . . for supplying with fuel the destitute and worthy poor of Pittsburgh and vicinity." This fund is one of the earliest known philanthropic endowments in the Pittsburgh area. Following Charles Brewers example, several other endowment funds or trusts were set-up by donors and managed by the Western Pennsylvania Hospital through the early 20th century.

During the American Civil War, the managers of the hospital provided facilities for the Federal government’s Department of War for use as a soldier’s hospital and home. The Pittsburgh Sanitary Fair, held from June 1 to June 20, 1864 raised funds that supported the soldier’s facility. As many as 1,500 soldiers were treated at the facility per day. By 1871, the management and operations of the soldier’s hospital and home was merged into Western Pennsylvania Hospital.

Through the late 19th century, the Western Pennsylvania Hospital became home to the Western Pennsylvania Medical College (1883) and a School of Nursing (1892). By 1891, the medical school became affiliated with the Western University of Pennsylvania and it was eventually purchased and merged into the renamed University of Pittsburgh. The nursing program remains part of the hospital to this day (2014).

When the facilities at the Polish Hill location became outdated and the health care field had changed from the treatment of the poor with ill health to the treatment of victims of industrial accidents, the hospital began planning for relocation. In 1912, a new facility was constructed on Friendship Avenue across the street from Friendship Park in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh. An enter wing of the new hospital was reserved for the Carnegie Steel Company and was staffed by company physicians and nurses.

The Western Pennsylvania Hospital became known simply as “West Penn Hospital” in the 20th century as it became a leader in new forms of health care. In 1959, they opened the first intensive care unit in Pittsburgh and in 1971 they installed the first rooftop heliport in Pittsburgh for the transport of the critically ill and emergency services.

In 1999, West Penn Health Systems purchased Allegheny General Hospital on Pittsburgh’s North Side (including 3 other community facilities in western Pennsylvania) from the bankrupt Allegheny Health, Education and Research Foundation (AHERF) to form the West Penn Allegheny Health Network (WPAHS). In 2013, Highmark was to acquire WPAHS and announced that it would be renamed the Allegheny Health Network.

Following the establishment of the Western Pennsylvania Hospital in 1848, provisions were made for the care of the mentally ill. Under the guidance of Dorothea Dix, known throughout the United States for her advocacy in regard to the treatment of the mentally ill, a separate hospital facility was planned outside of the city limits on a 400+ acre tract of land in Kilbuck Township in 1859. The facility opened in 1862 and the train station and area surrounding the hospital became known as Dixmont, in honor of Ms. Dix. The facility was situated in a park like setting, with gardens, farms, and views of the Ohio River. By the late 19th century the facility housed between 1,200-1,500 patients.

In 1907, the facility became independent of the Western Pennsylvania Hospital and became known as Dixmont Hospital for the Insane. With the changing responsibilities of the state government following the depression and the demand for better financial management of mental health institutions, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took over ownership of the hospital in 1946. It remained a mental hospital until July 1984 when it was closed due to the deinstitutionalization health care policies of state and federal governments that contributed to the decline in the number of patients. The approximate 300 remaining patients were transferred to other area facilities.

While there were several efforts to save the campus of the Dixmont site, it was demolished in 2006 to make way for commercial development.