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Berry sisters break barriers in founding Children's Mercy Hospital

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Posted at 4:02 PM, Mar 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-26 19:28:55-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Children's Mercy Hospital's current status as one of the top children's hospitals in the country hides the hospital's otherwise humble beginnings.

A pair of sisters, Alice Berry Graham and Katherine Berry Richardson, founded it in the early 1900s. But the sisters didn’t just build a hospital in Kansas City, they built bridges to the African-American community, all while breaking barriers at every turn.

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Alice Berry Graham
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Katherine Berry Richardson

"The older sister Alice, was the business person and she had that mind," local historian Tom McCormally said. "Katherine was more passionate. She was described as a dictator by some people, because she knew what she wanted and she was relentless and she was gonna do what she had to do for the kids."

McCormally is the author of "For All Children Everywhere," a look at the Berry sisters and the history of Children's Mercy.

One thing the women did have in common was their determination and conviction to always do the right thing. Those traits came from their father, an abolitionist during the Civil War.

"Their progressiveness, that’s what I would say they are, progressive, came very naturally because of the way they were raised by a dad who had very high principles and was willing to stand up for those principles," Children's Mercy Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer Michelle Wimes said.

It was their dad who insisted they get an education, sending them to high school - something that was uncommon for women at the time.

After that, the Berry sisters set their sights even higher.

"So the deal was that Alice, the older sister, would work as a teacher to pay for Katherine’s education in medical school," former Children's Mercy physician and amateur historian Dr. Jane Knapp said. "When Katherine was done, she would return the favor and would support Alice’s education and dental school. And that’s what they did."

The women initially set out to make it in male-dominated fields, with Alice as a dentist and Katherine as a surgeon. But at the time, most hospitals weren't hiring women, and they found it hard to get patient referrals.

Relying on word of mouth, the sisters operated out of their house to make ends meet.

In 1897, their focus changed when they found a young girl, estimated to be around 5 or 6 years-old, who was sick and alone.

"Alice was the one who brought the first child home that she found abandoned on the streets. And she looked at her younger sister and said, 'It’s time that somebody takes care of these kids, and you and I are the ones to do that,'" McCormally said.

The pair rented one bed at a women's hospital at the corner of 15th Street and Cleveland Avenue in 1897.

Word spread of the two sisters willing to treat orphaned patients and those whose families couldn’t afford to pay, something that was uncommon at the time.

"That’s the story of so many children from that era where they were kind of disposable property," McCormally said. "If they were sickly, they couldn’t help their parents in the farm and they couldn’t be of as much value to the families. They ended up being on the streets."

Seeing the need, the sisters focused on serving those children and moved to a house donated by a socialite on Kansas City's east side.

As patients poured in, the Berry sisters also started a training program for nurses. They started offering bedside and classroom teaching to help children keep up with their education.

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Child at the Children's Mercy Ward at Wheatley-Provident Hospital.

In 1903, the location officially opened as "Mercy Hospital," but they quickly outgrew the location.

The sisters turned to fundraising as a way out of their quandary.

"Their strategy was pretty simple, they asked for money all the time!" Knapp said.

The sisters' pleas worked; they raised $375,000 to build a new hospital.

Sadly, Alice died before it was completed.

Katherine soldiered on, and the new Children's Mercy opened in 1917 along Independence Avenue as a charity hospital.

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"Until the 1950s, Children’s Mercy did not accept children whose parents had money or parents who had insurance," McCormally said. "They also did not accept payment for any of their services and the entire medical staff was volunteer until the 1960s."

While that was a major accomplishment, it wasn't enough for Katherine.

When Children's Mercy first opened, Black children were not allowed inside due to segregation.

Katherine tried to change the status quo, but quickly learned she'd lose funding from donors.

Her solution was to partner with friend and fellow surgeon, Dr. J. Edward Perry. Together, they started a separate Children's Mercy ward in Wheatley-Provident Hospital, a hospital for African Americans.

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J. Edward Perry

Katherine made sure children would receive the same level of care regardless of hospital.

"One of the things that Dr. Richardson said more than a century ago, and I’m quoting, she said, 'I have not served children unless I have served them all,'" Wimes said.

It was a novel undertaking for the time, and created an ideology that's central to Children’s Mercy, today.

The hospital's previous location still stands, although it now houses Kansas City University.

Inside, they've dedicated a conference room to Katherine, with a plaque commemorating her accomplishments. The skylights that once provided Katherine enough light to operate also remain.

Katherine was an accomplished surgeon, as is evident looking at these before and after pictures of some of the cleft palate surgeries she conducted.

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As for Alice, her skills as a dentist prompted the sisters to include dentists in their hospital, a practice that remains at Children's Mercy.

To honor these remarkable women, the health system recently started The Berry Institute. The institute focuses on leadership training and helps all Children's Mercy employees maximize their potential.

Despite all they did for children, the sisters never had children of their own, at least not biological children. Alice's husband died early on in their marriage, and Katherine and her husband never had children.

However, Katherine was known to bring patients into her own home to free up bed space and to continue caring for them. She even had a young orphan she raised as a son, who would later go on to serve as a health director for the city before pursuing a medical career of his own.

More information about the Berry sisters and Children's Mercy is available on the hospital's website.

Copies of "For All Children Everywhere," are available by calling the Children's Mercy gift shop at 816-234-3750.