Taking Care of Cornell’s Students’ Bodies

10 05 2011

After I wrote about the medical college, I felt inspired to write up a brief piece regarding the history of student health at Cornell. Understandably, the value of this entry to the practical person looking up health information is nil, but then, I would hope that if someone has health issues, they would be looking through health websites like Gannett’s instead of blogs.

Anyways, most Cornell students know that if they feel sick, or think they might be pregnant, or some combo thereof, that a trip to Gannett Health Center is in order. Back in Cornell nascent days, if you were sick, well…you were pretty much screwed. A student at Cornell a few years after its founding, if they were to become ill, could hope to be taken care of by their friends, roommates or professors, if they were lucky and had strong connections. Otherwise, you were S.O.L. If it was any consolation, so were all residents of the city of Ithaca, which wouldn’t get it’s first hospital for a few more years (the first hospital opened on Aurora Street sometime during the 1870s, and the second hospital was built off of Quarry Street in Lower Collegetown in 1910; that complex still stands today as the Quarry Arms apartments, which Collegetown Terrace will be built around). In 1870, the faculty senate voted to set aside rooms on campus for sick students (Bishop 176), and the first medical examiner, a sort of campus physician, was appointed in June 1877 (he held two job titles, the other being an assistant professor of mathematics). Jennie McGraw of Cornell Chimes fame put a bequest in her will of $15,000 for the construction of a student hospital on the grounds of Cornell, and this was increased to $40,000 before her death in 1891. However, thanks to the Great Will Case, Cornell never saw any of her money used towards a health facility.

The first building dedicated solely to student health was the Cornell Infirmary, which still stands as the Schuyler House dorm to the far southwest of main campus. The Sage Complex  initially consisted of only the east building, which was essentially a converted mansion built in 1880 as Henry Sage’s retirement home after he moved from Brooklyn to Ithaca (Bishop 211).  Upon his death in 1897, he asked that the building and land be donated to Cornell, which his sons Dean and William did with an additional $100,000 donation for maintenance (Bishop 333). They might not have done that if Sage had outlived his nemesis and fellow generous benefactor Willard Fiske. Both sons were furious that Fiske was interred in Sage Chapel in 1904 and abruptly stopped all involvement and donations to the university. William Sage actually had donated a building to Yale some years later. But, I digress. The original Cornell Infirmary had room for twenty patients, and the large addition on the west side was completed in 1912. What you received was bed, board, and modest nursing care and lab services. While a student of yesteryear might receive advice on hygiene or bad habits, actual diagnosis by physicians was a role the university refused to take on until around 1940. It was felt that the university should not be responsible for the clinical care of its students, only lend a hand in their treatment. Medical advising by Cornell staff was generally discouraged.

By the 1950s, it was felt that the Infirmary was inadequate, poorly located and outdated, so a new building was constructed on land that used to hold two faculty residences. This building was named for media mogul Frank Gannett 1898, who generously funded its construction. The Gannett Health Clinic opened its doors in 1955 and received an expansion to its west side in 1979, bringing it to 39,000 sq ft. The masterplan suggests a 90,000-130,000 sq ft structure to replace the current building on the current site sometime during the next several years.

I’m marginally jealous that Cornell’s health center is on campus. The one at my grad school is located a half mile away across a four-lane highway. What a nice way some colleges provide for their students.



One response

27 08 2013
News Tidbits 8/27/13: Gannett Expansion Gets Greenlighted | Ithacating in Cornell Heights

[…] up with a waiting room or doctor’s office named for them in return.  Gannett Health Center opened its doors in 1955 (named for Frank Gannett 1898, the mid-century media titan), and expanded in […]

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