Hartford Dispensary

A Short History of Hartford Dispensary (1871 - )

Back in 1871 many of the citizens in greater Hartford County were unable to obtain medical services because they couldn't afford private medical care. A group of public-spirited citizens recognized the need to develop a community resource which would provide quality medical services to those individuals and applied to the state legislature to establish a public dispensary to serve the Hartford Community.

On July 5, 1871 the General Assembly approved an act incorporating the Hartford Dispensary.  And on April 9, 1872 the Dispensary opened its doors to the general public in the Brownell building at the corner of Ann Street and Asylum Avenue.  Thus, the Hartford Dispensary became the first outpatient medical clinic in the State of Connecticut.

For the next two years patients came at the rate of about one a day; and on December 22, 1874 the operators voted to “take measures as shall be deemed necessary for the removal of the Dispensary to Hartford Hospital.”  Shortly thereafter, the Dispensary moved to the Hartford Hospital although the Hospital never considered the Dispensary a department or part of the Hospital.  Eventually, the Hospital opened its own “outpatient” department.

In 1884, Dr. Joseph E. Root and Dr. M. Johnson both felt that there was a real need to continue to offer quality medical services to patients who could not afford private medical care.  On December 8th they hung out a sign on their Pearl Street office reading “Hartford Dispensary.”  They operated from Dr. Root’s back room and during the first year they treated 467 patients, the second year 516 patients, and during the first none months of the third year, a record breaking 1,454 patients.

At this time, the medical profession voiced some concern about the ethics of conducting public work from a physician’s private office.  However, the original members of the Hartford Dispensary voted to continue this community work.

In September 1887, the Hartford Sunday Gazette suggested that the churches set aside the last Sunday of each year to raise money for the Hartford Dispensary. On the first “Dispensary Sunday.” Nearly $350 was raised reflecting the strong community support that Hartford Dispensary received.

Years of Great Growth

From 1909, the Dispensary continued to grow in size and scope until it became one of Hartford’s most important community resources.  In 1915, a Social Service Department came into being and in 1919 Dr. F. Heublein gave the Dispensary its first x-ray machine.

In the 1920’s, the important work of the Hartford Dispensary was recognized by The Community Chest.  The Community Chest (the predecessor of the United Way) elected to financially support the Hartford Dispensary, thereby relieving them of their annual fundraising task.

In step with a city-wide movement in 1927, the Hartford Dispensary’s Social Services Department integrated and coordinated its activities with private and public health agencies.  Until a Municipal Hospital Outpatient Department was started, the Dispensary provided many highly specialized medical services which were not available through any other public resources.

Prior to 1931, many patients had to be turned away due to space limitations.  However, in 1931 the Hartford Dispensary’s facilities were again renovated and expanded; thereby, allowing the Dispensary to organize more diagnostic services and employ additional staff.  This development in medical diagnosis and expansion of treatment in many fields served not only to attract doctors, but to give patients more sophisticated and specialized services.

The War Years

During the war emergency, the Hartford dispensary served an important function as a center for draft board exams.  In the last two months of 1940, the draft board examined 475 men at the Dispensary; the following year, 5,900 exams were given.  Many young doctors were being inducted into the military services which resulted in a reduction of medical staff to 21 physicians and 5 dentists.  This group of doctors, along with other staff, continued to provide regular medical services to the citizens of Hartford in addition to conducting physical exams for selective service.  The Hartford Dispensary received a commendation from President Truman for the valuable role they played during the war.

A Time of Transition

In the late 1940’s the most frequently asked question was, “can anyone go to the Dispensary?” The answer was anyone living in Hartford County who could not afford the services of a private doctor or dentist.  During this time, the medical staff was composed of 35 physicians and 12 dentists.  Approximately 80% of the medical services provided were volunteered.

In 1949, a special donation of $5,000 from the Hartford Foundation of Public Giving enabled the organization to renovate its dental clinic, one of the busiest and most needed departments.

At the 1954 Annual Meeting, the Dispensary gave special recognition to the able leadership of Dr. Harold Backus, physician-in-chief;  his assistant, Dr. Wilson Fitch-Smith; and the loyal medical and dental staff, the finest asset an organization can have.”  Further honor was paid the medical staff in the 84th Annual report which was dedicated to “the doctors and dentists of the staff who gave their time to aid the Dispensary.”

In 1960, the Dispensary moved to 45 Retreat Avenue where it remained for the next 20 years,  In 1960, the Dispensary operated thirty clinics and was staffed by 25 doctors and 13 dentists, along with other supportive personnel.  In 1960, a fee of 50 cents was still the average charge for most clinic visits. Statistics show that the total number of patients for 1960 was 2,137, and the total number of treatments was 12,144.

In 1962, Dr. Backus, physician-in-charge, “reminisced” about the early days of the Dispensary and traced its progress through the 42 years he had been connected with it.  He spoke of the “lack of facilities and staff at the end of World War I, and the great help Dr. Miller and Dr. Buck had been in organizing the clinics.  Today there are 30 loyal doctors, the work is systemized, and the Dispensary is a happy-going institution, a most pleasant place in which to work.”

New Directions

In the hundredth year of its existence, the Hartford Dispensary was considering how to be of greater assistance to the Hartford community. In the 1971 Annual report, Wilson Fitch-Smith commented about this situation.

“One hundred years after the Hartford Dispensary was founded we need to find the best way it can fit into this community now.  Originally it fulfilled an unmet need, namely, providing ambulatory and dental services for those who could not afford the services of private doctors. Now, however, all hospitals in Hartford have extensive and active outpatient services and offer continuity of high-grade care around the clock and on week-ends and holidays through their emergency rooms.  The Dispensary, on the other hand, has been an 8 to 4, 5-day-a-week facility.”

Responding to a critical unmet community need, the Hartford dispensary’s Board of Directors decided in 1970 to sponsor a health care program specifically and exclusively geared for the treatment of heroin addiction.  At this time, Hartford was experiencing an acute heroin epidemic and treatment resources for addicts were virtually non-existent.  In the spring of 1971 the Hartford Dispensary started a methadone maintenance treatment program.  Since then, thousands of heroin addicts have enrolled in treatment at the Dispensary.