The Letterman General Hospital


Pages 5, 6 & 50.


      IDEAL in its situation and perfect in its equipment is the Letterman General Hospital at the Presidio of San Francisco.  The hospital is built in the midst of trees, ornamental shrubbery, flowers and lawns, with the beautiful San Francisco Bay in the foreground and the Presidio hills as a background.  There are few days in the year when patients cannot remain out of doors, as the rainfall is not excessive and it is never really cold.  Nature supplied the wonderful site and the officers of the hospital have utilized the setting to advantage.  The main buildings inclose two courts, carpeted with green lawns and bordered by flowers which bloom the year round.  Wide verandas and solariums, opening into these courts, provide attractive resting places for patients.  And this is the same site which was pronounce unsatisfactory because—“Roads are too dusty, fogs will be bad for those afflicted with respitory ailments, sea too close and insects obnoxious.”

      But that was in July, 1899 when the hospital just partly completed, was filled to overflowing with wounded men from Cuba.  In all, 5390 patients were cared for that year, in spite of the fact that the wards were heated by stoves and kerosene lamps furnished light.  To care for that large number of patients ordinary barracks in the Presidio were fitted with the temporary furnishings of a hospital.  Major W. S. H. Mathews, brigade surgeon, U. S. Volunteers, in charge of the institution during the construction was replaced after the formal opening by Major A. C. Girard, who, in addition to his executive duties as commanding officer, took personal charge of the mess and performed all operations (178 the first year), the while he struggled with incompetent help, epidemics, shiploads of wounded men debarked by transport from the Philippines, and swarms of flies and mosquitoes.  As assistants he had six medical officers, one line officer, three hospital stewards, eleven acting hospital stewards and twenty-three women nurses.  Contract surgeons were employed at that time, under the old army system, but so often did they change that they were more of a hindrance than help.

      Things went better the second year in spite of the fact that the China Expedition added an extra burden to the already over-burdened Letterman.  Major Girard was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel; the heating plant was completed and a more permanent staff was secured. 

      The third year, 1901, was probably the worst, for fire destroyed several ward buildings, mess halls, kitchen, quartermaster shops and even the tents in which the overflow patients had been placed.  New buildings were not completed until late in the year, at which time the first inter-communicating telephone system was installed.

      Then in December, 1902, came the first case in an epidemic of measles that lasted until June.  During this time the usual quota of sick and wounded men had to be cared for in addition to the measles victims, and it is a miracle that but eighteen deaths resulted.  When all danger from the epidemic had passed Colonel Girard, who had worked night and day for over six months, resigned in favor of Major W. P. Kendall.

      Official Washington had marked the struggles of the little hospital and liberal appropriations were voted by Congress during 1903, and, once having been recognized , since then no expense has been spared to make the Letterman General Hospital into what Secretary Baker has called the finest hospital in the country.          Aside from the pleasure of recording a steady growth during the next fourteen years, little happened outside of the regular routine, unless we except the fire of 1906.  During the intervening years from 1903 the following men have been the commanding officer of the institution:  Col. James E. Kennedy, Major John D. Glennon, Col. Euclid D. Frick, Col. Guy L. Edie, Lt. Col. W. H. Winterberg, Lt. Col. Leo Mudd, Lt. Col. E. G. Northington, Col. Robt. M. Thornburgh.

      At the outbreak of the war with Germany Letterman was officially designated an orthopedic center where amputation cases are gathered from the American Expeditionary Force.  It is also a “mental” hospital where special provisions have been made for handling mental derangements and other specialty is the handling of venereal cases.  Incidentally it is one of the few army hospitals with a prison ward to which general prisoners from all over the country are sent.  As to the manner in which Letterman bore these burdens the following is quoted from the Army and Navy Journal.  It was printed during the war:

      “The fame of Letterman has stretched to the four corners of the nation and to foreign lands, where it is rated among the top-notchers, and it is this reputation that has attracted some of the finest surgeons and medical men of the country for service on its staff.  Positions on Letterman’s staff are at a premium because of this fact and the administration is thus able to select the men best suited for its needs—all surgeons know the Letterman as a hospital that stands as a monarch of them all.”

      During the war the following additional construction and alterations have been completed and are in use:      Nineteen wards, capacity 40 patients each.

      One psychopathic ward, capacity 100 patients.

      One stable, capacity 28 animals.

      One garage, capacity 12 ambulances.

      One permanent barrack, capacity 75 men.

      Four temporary barracks, capacity 67 men each.

      One nurses’ dormitory, capacity 60 rooms.

      One dining room, capacity 300 men.

      One dining room and kitchen, capacity 500 men.

      Addition to disinfecting and sterilizing plant.

      Addition to power and heating plant.

      Painting on entire exterior and 75 per cent of interior of hospital.

      New roads built and macadam roads resurfaced.

      Sewer and water system installed for temporary wards.

      Original sewer was relaid with larger main.

      Three long runways built for orthopedic cases.

      Stage with dressing rooms built in inner court.


      All of this was done in addition to the vast amount of improvements on the older buildings.

      Every branch pertaining to the Quartermaster’s department was taxed far beyond its limit, but always was the emergency taken care of.

            Motor transportation was found inadequate and was enlarged from time to time until now it is ample for purposes.

      Power plant carried a load bordering on the danger limit in order to provide heat, light, hot water and power.

      Clothing department doubled and trebled and, then trebled again, but always carried the necessary material.

      Subsistence branch ordinarily carried supplies for months ahead but was forced to order weekly on account of lack of storage space.

      General supplies have been a considerable item to San Francisco concerns and increased in same proportion as other departments.

      Railroad transportation department routed 4151 outgoing officers, nurses and enlisted men.

      Salvage department deserves a special story, for through it thousands of dollars are saved.

      From ten to fifteen skilled mechanics and twenty laborers are constantly employed in repairs to buildings and upkeep of grounds in addition to what enlisted men are available.

      The above is but a resume of the wonderful growth of Letterman since April, 1917.

      In May, 1919, there were 76 officers attached to the hospital enlisted men (exclusive of patients), together with 99 graduate nurses, 20 student nurses and 150 civilian employees.  Before the war the hospital had a capacity for but 600 beds, while now 1800 patients are being cared for and there is room for more.

      The many interesting features of the Letterman are treated in special articles farther along in this edition, but it may not be amiss to enumerate a few of the most necessary departments of the hospital that were practically unknown before the great war upset traditions and precedents.                                                       



      All foreigners who served with the United States Army are entitled to immediate naturalization without the formality of filing a preliminary declaration of intention.  The purpose of the department is to acquaint soldiers with this fact and to help them obtain the privilege.  Many take advantage of it every week.  Lieutenant Stech is in charge, in addition to his duties as Psychological Examiner, and in charge of the



where all men are advised as to their rights concerning insurance and advised as to how much to carry and when to convert from term insurance to a standard form and how to select the type of insurance best fitted to the individual.



in charge of Captain Frederick H. Kuegle, M. C. and with Sergeant (first class) Ralf Porch as Recruiting Sergeant was opened on the second floor of the Administration Building on March 10, 1919, for enlistments in the Medical Department and Quartermaster Corps of this hospital.  Total number enlisted and re-enlisted from that date until June 17, 1919, was 106.



has charge of patient’s service records and looks after their pay.  It also handles all questions concerning allotments, changes in insurance and Liberty Bonds.  A year ago one man cared for a payroll of fifty patients, today the office necessitates eight men to handle the monthly payroll of over eleven hundred patients.



      Lieutenant Arthur C. Kennedy is the man you write to when you wish to locate a soldier friend.  He has made an enviable record in handling the records of the patients.  In 1917 the office handled the records of about 700 daily present and today it is over 1500.  The little 5x8 cards in the Sick and Wounded Department carry a brief history of each patient’s case, while the other department of the office, Detachment of Patients, is concerned with service records, payroll of patients and matters concerning insurance, allotments, etc.



is the name given to the modern laundry and dry cleaning plant at the Letterman.  Like every other branch of the hospital it has kept pace with the growth and emergency found it capable of handling the enormous amount of work poured into it.  Figuring on the basis of contract prices the plant is saving Uncle Sam about $4,000 a month.  Service men and civilians are employed.



cares for the valuables and money of the patients and personnel.  Its functions are similar to that of any bank.  Should a corps man or patient be unable to present himself at the pay table this office draws his money and keeps it until he calls for it.


through which all patients who have reached the maximum improvement possible must pass in order that the Medical Officers appointed as a Disability Board by the Commanding Officer may examine him and determine the extent or degree of disability which incapacitates the soldier from earning a living in civilian life.  Major Luckie is President of the Board, Vice Major Shiels, returned to civil life.  Hospital Sergeant Strong is in charge of the office.



      All men given an S. C. D. pass through this office where the claims for compensation are made.  All disabled soldiers will be given a free education in any line by the government and a member of the Federal Board of Vocational Education is here to help the man pick out the study best suited to his needs.



      This question is so often asked that the answer is printed in capital letters.  YOU CAN VISIT LETTERMAN ANY AFTERNOON BETWEEN THE HOURS OF 2 P. M. AND 4 P. M.  Either the Union or Geary car (D) will take you there.  Walk over to the Administration Building, almost directly opposite the “Y” Building.  If you wish to see any particular patient the sergeant just inside the door will locate him for you.  Certain rules must be observed concerning food and dainties brought to patients, otherwise well-meaning friends might ruin all that the doctors had accomplished.  Morbid sightseers will be disappointed, for Letterman, aside from the line-up of wheel-chairs and beds along the porch, resembles more a summer resort than a hospital.  And just one word for the fellow you will meet—don’t gush over him and tell him what hero he is nor weep upon his shoulder.  The first he won’t believe, and the second musses up his uniform.  He knows that the



is taking the best of care of him and fitting him to enter civilian life once more able to compete successfully with his fellow man in spite of handicaps.  His experience made a man of him and he has no time for mawkish sympathy.  If you really want to help him make it business to see that, other things being equal, service men are given the preference when jobs are being given out.


      The Adjutant, acting under the direction of the Commanding Officer, is the executive and administrative officer of the hospital.  He has charge of all correspondence, reports and the various rosters pertaining to the service.  He issues and verifies all orders and details pertaining to the hospital.  Through him the Commanding Officer communicates with the officers and men of his command.

      During the period April 6, 1917 (at date war was declared), December 31, 1918, there were issued:

      Eighty-two general orders, 431 special orders and fifty-one hospital orders.

      From April 6, 1917, to October 10, 1918, 349 special orders, containing 1,543 paragraphs, were issued, affecting 2,378 men.

      From October 10, 1918, to the present, June 17, 1919, 236 special orders, containing 2,553 paragraphs, affecting 3,081 men, were issued.

      From January 1, 1919, to June 17, 1919, 154 special orders were issued, comprising 1,988 paragraphs.

      Each paragraph affected at least one individual, and in many cased more than one.  Therefore, special orders during this period affected no less than 1,900 individuals, and probably at least 2,500.

      Since January 1, 1919, the following number of officers have reported at this hospital:

      Sixty-seven Medical Corps, six Sanitary Corps, five Dental Corps, one Veterinary Corps, four Engineer Corps, two Air Corps.

      Following were transferred or discharged:

      Fifty-nine Medical Corps, three Sanitary Corps, three Dental Corps, one Veterinary Corps.

      On June 17, 1919, the strength of the command was as follows:

                        Officers, Medical Corps…………….45

                        Officers, Dental Corps……………….9

                        Officers, Veterinary Corps…………...1

                        Officers, Quartermaster Corps…...…..1

                        Officers, Engineer Corps……………..4

                        Officers, Air Service…………….……2

                        Officers, Infantry………………...…...1

                        Nurses, Army Nurse Corps………….76

                        Nurses, Student Nurses…………...…44

                        Enlisted Men, Medical Department...454

                        Enlisted Men, Q. M. C………………73

                        Enlisted Men, M. T. C………………...5

                        Enlisted Men, Sanitary Corps………....1

                        Enlisted Men, Veterinary Corps………2

                        Civilian Employees…………………201

                        Enlisted patients in hospital………1,197

                        Officers patients in hospital……….…64



      The Post Exchange of the Letterman General Hospital was begun in the month of December, 1903, several years after the hospital itself was established.  It was instituted by two non-commissioned officers on duty here on a borrowed capital of a little over five hundred dollars.  One of these non-commissioned officers is now on duty as a Captain of the Quartermaster Corps, Captain John Wikander, the Supply Officer.

      From a small beginning as a lunch counter with a few boxes of cigars on the side, it has grown until it now comprises over twenty-five departments.  It has its own automobile truck, with a gas and oil station.  Its restaurant business has crowded all the pool and billiard tables away from its main room, and it has a flourishing butcher shop that supplies meat, eggs and poultry to the officers and men of the command.  The stock on hand constantly is valued at over $10,000.00, and the item of revenue tax, which is paid each month, is no small expense.

      Since the origin of the Post Exchange, it has paid out in dividends for the detachments of enlisted men on duty, $77,735.49.  This does not include the expense of the motion picture shows which were continued for over two years at a loss, in order to provide recreation for patients here, which work has lately been turned over to the Y. M. C. A.   The Post Exchange maintains two commodious barber shops, a bootblack stand and a tailor shop.  The slogan of the exchange has recently become, “You can get anything at the Post Exchange.”



      Capt. John Wikander, Q. M. C.—Quartermaster, Supply Officer, Signal Officer, Salvage Officer, Acting Motor transport Officer, Contracting and Purchasing Office, Transportation Officer and Finance Officer.

      Capt. Wm. H. Thomas, Sanitary Corps—Assistant to Supply Officer, Charge of Medical Supplies.

      Capt. W. Bishop, Sanitary Corps—Assistant to Purchasing Officer, Charge of Subsistence Purchase Branch.

      Enlisted Men, Quartermaster Corps—5 Quartermaster Sergeants, 11 Sergeants, First Class; 21 Sergeants, 16 Corporals, 15 Privates, First Class; 5 Privates.

      Civilian Employes—11 Clerks, 1 Chief Engineer, 1 Assistant Engineer, 1 Dynamo Tender, 2 Firemen, 1 Foreman Carpenter, 5 Carpenters, 1 Foreman Plumber, 1 Plumber, 2 Teamsters, 20 Laborers, 8 Chauffeurs.



      Born December 7, 1875, Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin.  Elementary schooling, New York City.  College Preparatory, Miss Middleberger’s, Cleveland, Ohio. Pl H. B. degree, University of Chicago, Spring of ’97.  Teacher of Hyde Park High School, Chicago, two years.  Married June 20, 1899.  Eight quarters graduate work toward Doctorate in Psychology, 1909 and 1910.  Seven years clinical psychologist in Oakland Public School.  Three years summer lecturer, clinical psychology, University of California.  Supervisor of exhibit on Atypical children.  Panama-Pacific Exposition, 1915.  Author of “Hicks Series for Atypical Children.”  Articles on “Animal Learning Curves.”  “Child Psychology,” etc., and short stories.  Supervisor of Reconstruction Aides in Occupational Therapy, Letterman General Hospital since September, 1918.


      Patriotism is just as necessary during peace time as it was during the war.






Transcribed by Sharon Walford Yost.

Source: ”The History of Letterman General Hospital, Pages 5, 6 & 50. Published by the Listening Post, Presidio, San Francisco, Cal. 1919.

© 2010  Sharon Walford Yost.