Is There a Doctor on Campus? A History of MSU’s Hospitals

Built in 1909, these Isolation Cottages served to quarantine sick students from their peers.
Built in 1909, these Isolation Cottages served to quarantine sick students from their peers. Courtesy MSU Archives

 This time of year it’s not uncommon for a Spartan to come down with the seasonal flu. Luckily the Olin Health Center is readily available to treat the aches and pains of MSU’s student body. However this professional care was not always so readily available.  A hundred fifty years ago a student had to consider the possibility that they wouldn’t live to see their own graduation. Contagious diseases were a menace to the campus for over half a century, killing many young Spartans. In MSU’s long history there have been a series of hospitals and medical centers of varying effectiveness. Olin is only the latest in a long history of medical care at MSU.

In the very beginning MSU had no health services for its students. A turnip field was all that resided at the site of the Olin Health Center. Sick students either went home or simply bore the brunt of the illness in their dorm rooms (some to never recover).  The swampy terrain of the region was prime breeding grounds for malarial mosquitos, which caused an 1859 outbreak that afflicted everyone on campus save a single professor. Outbreaks of diphtheria, measles, typhoid, and undulant fever would claim the lives of several students before they could graduate.

In 1894 the first campus hospital was established in a seven-room house on the site of the present day MSU Union for a cost of $3,500. It wouldn’t be until 1900 though that the first full-time nurse would be hired and a doctor would visit campus on a weekly basis. Epidemics of disease that would cripple up to half the student body continued though into the 1880’s and 90’s.

This small house would serve as the college's first hospital up until the 1920's when it was raised to make way for the new MSU Union.
This small house would serve as the college’s first hospital up until the 1920’s when it was raised to make way for the new MSU Union. Courtesy MSU Archives

To prevent such mass outbreaks, sick students were often separated from their peers in “isolation cottages”.  Built in 1909, these small buildings acted as quarantine spaces until the afflicted students got well or died. Originally located behind the Bacteriology Building (present day Marshall Hall), the Isolation Cottages served their purpose until a more modern hospital could be built.

The growing number of students and an outbreak of Spanish Flu in 1918 that claimed the lives of eighteen students, prompted college officials to upgrade their healthcare facilities. In 1923 the college hospital was moved into the President’s House (originally at the site of Gilchrist Hall). This though was hardly an improvement, as the building was ill-equipped for the needs of a hospital. Meanwhile the student body continued to grow in size. Faulty plumbing and a defunct sterilizer in the Bacteriology Building caused an outbreak of undulant fever among forty veterinary students in February 1939. Thirty would be hospitalized and one student from New Jersey was killed by the outbreak.

President's House
The President’s House. Courtesy MSU Archives

Richard M. Olin MD stepped in to promote the building of modern hospital for the college. Olin was the college’s first full-time physician and had served previously as the state’s first commissioner of health. Seeking to end outbreaks of infectious disease, Olin helped design the Olin Health Center that we know today. Sadly Olin died before he could see his vision of a modern university hospital completed in 1939.

The new health facility was equipped to house up to sixty patients and equipped with two surgical rooms. Olin would be expanded to its present size via additions in 1957 and 1968. These expansions increased the number of beds to 130, provided additional offices, and an emergency receiving space. Through these improvements the Olin Health Center was able to curb the number of sick patients, despite the exploding population of students on campus. Olin would also serve as the staging ground for various student events, fundraisers, and activist movements.

The Olin Health Center provided the medical care deserving of a first class university.
The Olin Health Center provided the medical care deserving of a first class university. Courtesy MSU Archives

In 1981 Olin ceased to be an inpatient hospital and became the outpatient health clinic we know today. Renovations in 1983 would convert former surgery and bedrooms into offices and waiting rooms. Today Olin provides a wide variety of services to students, including immunizations, counseling, and check ups. Although students of MSU will continue to get sick, we can hopefully count out such violent outbreaks that plagued the university in its early years.


Author: Max Forton

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