Historical essay
Thrown Open to the Public: Medicine, Modernity, and Disabled Veterans on National Hospital Day in the Interwar Years

Thrown Open to the Public: Medicine, Modernity, and Disabled Veterans on National Hospital Day in the Interwar Years

Evan P. Sullivan

On May 12, 1923 hundreds of visitors poured into United States Veterans Hospital 81 for insane soldiers in the Bronx for the third annual National Hospital Day. New Yorkers toured the facilities and viewed exhibits of disabled veterans, paying particular attention to a new printing shop “where patients publish the hospital paper, Hospitality.” Touting the venture and the benefits of modern rehabilitation, head of the hospital Dr. Chronquest stated, “The interest they are taking in the paper makes for a speedy recovery in many cases.”1 From ten in the morning until four in the afternoon, nurses provided tours, and visitors were invited to a special lunch prior to departing, leaving the hospital’s staff and patients to their normal routines.2

Just like their counterparts in cities across the country, curious citizens responded to hospitals, whose doors were “thrown open to the public” as a way to increase awareness of what modern medicine was achieving for soldiers and civilians alike. And while this new national holiday was one that encompassed civilian and military hospitals, headlines more often than not highlighted the veteran military medical establishment and the lives stashed within it.

National Hospital Day does not exist in its original form today, but instead has grown into a National Hospital Week. No longer are curious onlookers invited into hospitals by the hundreds or thousands to mingle with patients. Instead, National Hospital Week is a chance to thank hospitals and hospital staff for the sacrifices they make to continue providing medical relief to millions. In fact, the American Hospital Association’s advertising of National Hospital Week refers to the hospital staff, physicians, researchers and cleaning staff as our modern superheroes: “For every patient, behind the scene there are thousands of people acting as superheroes each and every day.” What has grown into a week of thanks for the superheroes of the hospital began as a tribute to the promises of modern medicine, symbolized by the wounded and disabled veterans of the Great War.

National Hospital Day first began in 1921 as a tribute to Florence Nightingale, one of the leaders in modern nursing and care techniques. Prior to the 1920s, hospitals were often dangerous places and not the sterile high-tech atmospheres we are used to today. However, transformations in sanitation, medicine, and efficiency made them slightly less dangerous. President Harding, writing in 1922 two weeks before Hospital Day, acknowledged the importance because U.S. hospital services were still “a long way from adequate.” So hospitals planned exhibitions spotlighting modern X-ray technology and displays of subspecialties like occupational therapy popularized during the war.3 A year later Dr. Nelson Lowry celebrated the day by providing a demonstration of an anesthetic developed during the war. Modern medicine took this increased efficiency and growth as a boon, and the executive secretary of the National Hospital Day Committee sought in 1923 to make “the hospital the first place to go instead of the last.”4

Additionally, National Hospital Day coincided with an increase in rhetoric about citizenship during, and in the wake of, the First World War. Just as the First World War was a negotiation of citizenship for all Americans, so too were the postwar interactions with its veterans. Writing about the coming of the first Hospital Day, General John Pershing urged citizens to visit hospitals for veterans, framed partially as a duty of the informed citizen.

Pershing justified the opening of America’s veterans hospitals as a way to become educated about the work of the medical establishment because only months later Congress would vote on the “Sweet Bill,” which established the Veterans’ Bureau, a precursor to the modern Veterans Administration.5 Thus from its inception, National Hospital Day operated in the nexus of publicizing both ideal forms of citizenship and also modernity in the form of medicine and the bureaucratic state.

A 1923 hospital ward with people laying in side-by-side and a man in the foreground holding a radio receiver to his ear.
(Boston Daily Globe, May 10, 1923.)

While seemingly divergent topics, the two — the ideal veteran citizen and modern medicine and state apparatuses — can highlight an important connection. Images present in the myriad newspaper articles inevitably depicted, whether accurately or not, happy veterans enjoying the services of modern hospitals. One such image from 1923 depicts a cheery veteran convalescing in a ward at Chelsea Naval Hospital in Massachusetts with at least six other patients.

In the foreground is Carl Grande, a veteran from Saratoga Springs, New York, enjoying a new handheld radio that allowed him to listen to music without the traditional gramophone that often disturbed fellow veterans in the ward. The article explains that other hospitals in the state will likely enjoy the same technology in the near future.6 Grande represents the depiction of the veteran happily accepting both modern medicine and modern technology, within the wards of a modern medical facility.

President Calvin Coolidge in the center of a group of people. Coolidge is slightly smiling down at a smiling man in a wheelchair.
“Executive Bestows Rare Smile Upon Cheerful Veteran” (Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1926.)

Images like these continued into the late 1920s. A large photograph emblazoned in the Los Angeles Times in 1926 reports on that year’s National Hospital Day festivities and shows President Calvin Coolidge visiting disabled veterans at Walter Reed Hospital, where he “witnessed a wheel chair race.” The image depicts Coolidge and officials, including the director of the Veterans’ Bureau, speaking with a number of veterans in wheelchairs. The headline reads simply: “Executive Bestows Rare Smile Upon Cheerful Veteran.”7

Service-connected disability was thought to be largely a depressing affliction in postwar American culture for society and soldier alike if not “revitalized” through rehabilitation medicine. However, according to this image it could also be at least temporarily alleviated through the patriotic interaction with officials of modern bureaucracy and within the modern hospital.

If these images weren’t enough to convince the American public that the modern hospital should indeed be “the first place to go instead of the last,” a year later officials utilized National Hospital Day to celebrate the opening of Sawtelle Soldiers’ Home in Los Angeles. A brand new medical facility and veterans’ hospital, Sawtelle was six stories of “steel and concrete,” the “loftiest structure of its kind among government hospitals.” Similar to articles of previous celebrations, the article touted the latest medical technology including X-ray equipment, laboratories, and exhibitions of physiotherapy and occupational therapy services. Colonel James Mattison, chief surgeon at Sawtelle consciously chose the official opening to coincide with National Hospital Day because of “the national importance of that date.”8

In “throwing open the doors” to the public, the early manifestations of National Hospital Day were social occasions that marketed hospitals, the state, and the rehabilitated disabled veteran as the pinnacle of modern America. The message was clear. The state was succeeding in its bid to re-integrate veterans into society, and thus war and modern bureaucracy were justified. Within this larger agenda, images of clean wards and happy patients delivered the message that modern hospital care could be trusted. These points made sense because disabled veterans were depicted as embracing them both, and contemporary rhetoric positioned them as most closely exhibiting the values of the American citizen.

Thus the spectacle of National Hospital Day was situated at the convergence of the development of modern medicine, modern citizenship, and the modern bureaucratic state, processes that the First World War further accelerated. Through savvy appeals to the heroism of veterans and the ideals of citizenship, the American public embraced modern hospital care in the World War I era, setting the stage for the role of medical care today.


  1. “Hospitals Observe Their National Day: Children’s Parties Mark Anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s Birth,” New York Times, May 13, 1923. Return to text.
  2. “Veterans’ Hospital Curing Many Here: Bronx Institution Reports It Has Discharged 1,081 Men in Year,” New York Times, May 6, 1923. Return to text.
  3. “Harding Endorses Hospital Day Program Planned by 4,000 Institutions for May 12,” New York Times, April 10, 1922. Return to text.
  4. “Hospitals Made ‘First, Not Last Place’ To Visit: Florence Nightingale Work Honored,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 13, 1923. Return to text.
  5. “Pershing Suggests Visits: Wants Citizens to Inform Themselves on Care of Disabled,” New York Times, April 28, 1921. Return to text.
  6. “Wireless Concerts, Individually, For 400 Ex-Service Patients at Chelsea Hospital,” Boston Daily Globe, May 10, 1923. Return to text.
  7. “Executive Bestows Rare Smile Upon Cheerful Veteran,” Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1926. Return to text.
  8. “Soldiers’ Hospital Opens Thursday: New Million and Half Dollar Building at Sawtelle Completed,” Los Angeles Times, May 11, 1927. Return to text.

Featured image caption: U.S. Veterans Bureau Hospital No. 100, Ward 11, 5500 Armstrong Road, Battle Creek, Calhoun County, MI (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Evan is an Instructor of History at SUNY Adirondack. He holds a PhD in History from University at Albany, and specializes in gender, disability, and war in the twentieth century. He focuses specifically on veteran disability and rehabilitation in the United States following the First World War.

1 thought on “Thrown Open to the Public: Medicine, Modernity, and Disabled Veterans on National Hospital Day in the Interwar Years

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      Very interesting article and well written. I thought it was very insiteful and informative. I actually was unaware of the background and history of Hospital Week, nor was I aware that hospitals use to be the last place people would go. I’ve heard in phrased as a joke before but I only took it as such. Excellent job. Love learning new things.

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