Did you ever wonder about the “Charlotte” in Charlotte Hungerford Hospital? Who was she?
Charlotte “Memorial” Hospital, as it was known when its doors first opened in 1916, was named in memory of Charlotte Austin Hungerford – a generous, well-respected woman who raised 14 children in the valley during the 1800s. Seeing a need for healthcare in their community, Torrington’s physicians and town leaders convinced Charlotte’s son, Uri, (her eleventh child), to ultimately plan, fund, and build a hospital in tribute to his beloved mother. She inspired many in her day, and he wanted a new hospital that would be a “beacon of hope and a place of comfort for the ill and injured.”
Charlotte Austin: courageous and cheerful
The story of the hospital began June 5, 1820, only one year before Bellevue Hospital was established in New York, when Charlotte Austin of Wolcottville, the 20-year-old daughter of a prominent local farmer and public official, married John Hungerford, a Torrington merchant. John would become one of the area’s leading industrialists—an owner of the Wolcottville Manufacturing Company and of the Coe Brass Manufacturing Company—while Charlotte became active in almost every religious and civic activity in Torrington. This redoubtable woman was known for her courage, cheerfulness and moral strength. When she married, she took on her husband’s two children from his first marriage and they went on to add 12 children of their own to the family.
Her son Uri Hungerford was born in 1842 when Charlotte was 41. He was sent to a military academy in New York for two years and upon graduation in 1858, at age 17, he headed West. Over the next 30 years, Uri made his fortune in the hardware industry, eventually forming his own company. By the time his mother died in 1895, the Uri T. Hungerford Brass & Copper Company was fast becoming the largest company of its kind in the United States.
Meeting a need
At the same time Uri was building a fortune from his offices in New York City, hospitals were popping up all over America. These hospitals were established as public, not-for-profit organizations by a non-paid board of governors to fill the medical needs of towns like Torrington. Like the rest of America in the 1800s, the people in our area changed their attitudes about hospitals. Previously, hospitals almost exclusively treated the poor and destitute. Most people above poverty level received treatment at home. There was little difference between the quality of home care and hospital care, and there was no social stigma associated with institutionalization.
However, as medical and scientific advances occurred in the late 1800s, area physi¬cians became influential in changing public attitudes by convincing the com¬munity of the more sophisticated and specialized nature of hospital care. They insisted that hospitals were the safest environments for surgery and for treating acute ailments of all people, rich and poor.
In 1902, it was the opinion of many local physicians and leaders in Torrington that the town needed a hospital. This line of thinking became even more prevalent as Torrington’s population continued to grow. In those days, residents depended on the Litchfield County Hospital in Winsted or on hospitals in Hartford, Waterbury and New Haven. Many Torrington residents who needed hospital care never actually received it, because the trips to these facilities by horse-drawn ambulance were arduous even for the healthy. Several physicians sought to fill the need for acute care by creating small hospital units within their offices. Generally, these accommodations were limited to two or three patients at a time and could not keep up with the growing demand.
A vision gains momentum
Sometime after 1910, Uri let it be known to his family in Torrington that his will held a substantial bequest for construction of a hospital to be named after his mother, commemorating her “boundless energy and dedication for helping others.” While his intentions were deemed admirable, his friends argued that the need was imperative and should not wait for his demise. Persuaded, he arranged to “buy a suitable site and build an adequate hospital” with a $500,000 contribution. The Charlotte Hungerford Hospital would soon be a reality.
Parts II and III on Charlotte Hungerford Hospital’s heritage will publish February 29 and March 14, respectively.