Mothers of Mercy
June 1, 1897: Dr. Alice Berry Graham rescues a crippled child whose mother is trying to give her away, inspiring Graham and sister Dr. Katharine Berry Richardson to found Children’s Mercy Hospital.
On June 1, 1897, Dr. Alice Berry Graham discovered a young, ailing girl whose mother could no longer afford to care for her. She and her sister, Dr. Katharine Berry Richardson, rented a bed and supplies at a maternity hospital where they saved the girl's life. This event prompted Graham and Richardson to dedicate their careers to the treatment of children. In 1904, they established Children's Mercy Hospital, which today remains one of the nation's preeminent pediatric hospitals.
Alice and Katharine Berry were born in Kentucky in 1852 and 1860, respectively. The sisters both completed high school, which was a somewhat unusual accomplishment at the time for men or women. More remarkably, Alice Berry used her salary as a school teacher to support Katharine's college studies. She received a Bachelor's and Master's degree in philosophy before earning an M.D. degree at the Pennsylvania Women's College of Philadelphia. Katharine then returned Alice's favor by working as a teacher to pay for Alice's dental education at the Philadelphia Dental College.
The two sisters made their way to Kansas City in 1897, where they attempted to open a medical practice downtown. Unfortunately, almost no one would seek treatment by female doctors in the 1890s, and no hospitals would hire the sisters as a part of the staff. By then each had married and taken new names. Katharine Berry Richardson and Alice Berry Graham rescued the aforementioned girl on June 1, 1897, by renting space in a small maternity hospital so that they could provide her care at no charge. They continued this practice with donated money and eventually purchased the hospital after it went bankrupt in 1899.
They commenced to rename the maternity hospital the "Free Bed Fund Association for Crippled, Deformed, and Ruptured Children." Housed in a dusty old home, the children's hospital specialized in providing free treatment, but it did charge patients whose parents could afford to pay. With their efforts scorned in the local newspapers because they were women, Katharine and Alice nonetheless managed to secure adequate funding from generous donations. In 1904, they renamed the hospital with the less-clunky moniker, "Children's Mercy Hospital."
Over the years, Children's Mercy expanded and moved locations. Dr. Alice Graham died on May 13, 1913, leaving Dr. Katharine Richardson in charge. In 1915 construction began for a new building at Woodland and Independence Avenue. When completed in 1917, it boasted special facilities for children that included playrooms and grounds, classrooms, and a sun porch for fresh air. A small research facility provided for the study of children's disease, but Children's Mercy would not become a major research institution until well after Katharine's death on June 3, 1933. Today, Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics still carries on the vision of Drs. Alice Berry Graham and Katharine Berry Richardson at a third location, 2401 Gillham Road, Kansas City, Missouri, which it has occupied since 1970.
Read full biographical sketches of people important to the founding of Children's Mercy Hospital; prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library:
- Biography of Katharine Berry Richardson, Founder and First Director of Children's Mercy Hospital, by Daniel Coleman.
- Biography of Avis Elida Smith (1851-1941), physician and early President of the Board of Directors of Children's Mercy Hospital, by Susan Jezak Ford.
- Biography of Linda Hall (1859-1938), benefactor of Children's Mercy, by Barbara Magerl.
View images of Children's Mercy Hospital that are in the Missouri Valley Special Collections:
- Postcard of Children's Mercy Hospital.
- Children's Mercy Hospital, early photograph.
- A dedication ceremony at Children's Mercy Hospital.
- Old Children's Mercy Hospital.
- Young boy receiving treatment at Children's Mercy Hospital, 1930s.
- Young patients watching a show at Children's Mercy Hospital, 1930s.
- Children's Mercy Hospital Entrance, 1986.
- Children's Mercy Nurses Home.
- Aerial view of "Hospital Hill," General and Children's Mercy Hospitals, 1950.
Check out the following books and articles about Children's Mercy Hospital:
- A History of Children's Mercy Hospital, by Roger Swanson.
- Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies, volume 1, by Mary K. Dains; biographical sketches of important women in Missouri history, including Drs. Alice Graham and Katharine Richardson, pp. 206-208.
- Kansas City Women of Independent Minds, by Jane Fifield Flynn; contains a biographical description of Dr. Katharine Richardson, pp. 127-129.
- Voices Across Time: Profiles of Kansas City’s Early Residents, by Dory DeAngelo; pp. 128-129.
Continue researching Children's Mercy Hospital using archival material held by the Missouri Valley Special Collections:
- Vertical File: Hospitals - Children's Mercy, Katharine Richardson.
- Vertical File: SC63, Richardson, Dr. Katharine.
- Vertical File: SC63, Hospitals - Children's Mercy.
- Vertical File: Hospitals - Children's Mercy.
- Vertical File: Hospitals - Children's Mercy, Dr. Robert Schauffler, among the first physicians at Children's Mercy.
- The History of Dentistry in Missouri, by the Missouri State Dental Association, 1938; mentions Dr. Alice Graham, dentist.
- Microfilm: Native Sons Scrapbooks, Roll 14, Lawyers, R. R. Brewster; Brewster served as legal counsel and fundraiser for the Free Bed Fund Association for Crippled, Deformed, and Ruptured Children.
By Jason Roe, doctoral student, Department of History, University of Kansas.
Daniel Coleman, Biography of Katharine Berry Richardson (1860-1933), Missouri Valley Special Collections.
Mary K. Dains, Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies, volume 1 (Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989), 206-208.
Jane Fifield Flynn, Kansas City Women of Independent Minds (Kansas City, MO: Fifield Publishing Co, 1992), 128-129.
Susan Jezak Ford, Biography of Avis Elida Smith (1851-1941), Missouri Valley Special Collections.