In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Portland Hospitals Before Mercy

Text contributions from Ian Saxine, MHS Historian.
Items courtesy of Maine Memory and Maine Medical Center Archive.

Although Mercy Hospital wasn’t the first hospital open to the general public in Maine, it wasn’t far behind. Modern hospital care as its understood in the 21st century, is a recent development in medical history. Before the late 19th century, most sick people received care in their homes. With few exceptions, hospital facilities were places where people went to die.

During the 19th century, the medical profession increasingly professionalized, partly due to the advances in scientific knowledge which led to treatments requiring specialized training and equipment. For example, advances in microscopes enabled the discovery of bacteria in 1866. The Civil War (1861-1865) also encouraged both the growth of the medical profession in the United States and the government’s investment in it for wartime purposes.

When Maine General Hospital opened its doors in Portland in 1868, it became the first hospital in the state open to the general public. At the time, it was the only facility available to the sick unless they were a “seaman, lunatic, or pauper,” according to one early scholar. Sailors had access to the U.S. Marine Hospital, the mentally ill could go to the State Asylum for the Insane in Augusta, and the poor could receive some degree of care in the almshouse.

In Portland, the Maine Eye and Ear Infirmary opened in 1886 as a place to treat those types of maladies among the poor, and became a full-fledged general hospital in 1928. The Children’s Hospital opened in 1898 on High Street. Six years later, on Woodfords Street, St. Barnabas Hospital was founded to treat patients with diseases requiring surgery, and had 50 beds by 1918.

None of these facilities, however, proved sufficient to cope with the great Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919.