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The new, $417 million Columbia-St. Mary's Hospital opens Oct. 12.
The new, $417 million Columbia-St. Mary's Hospital opens Oct. 12.

New Columbia-St. Mary's combines two legacies

When the ceremonial drapes were raised on the atrium window of the new Columbia-St. Mary's Medical Center Saturday morning, those taking part in celebrating the future of medical care in the area were able to take a glimpse at its roots.

Located directly across Prospect Ave. from the gleaming new, $417 million facility stands an otherwise inconspicuous brick building which, now home to various office facilities, once housed the state's first hospital.

Three nuns from the Daughters of Charity formed St. John's Infirmary in Milwaukee in 1848 - the same year Wisconsin became a state. Originally located Downtown at the corner of Jackson and Wells Streets, the hospital moved to the East Side in 1855 when the name was changed to St. Mary's Hospital.

The Prospect Ave. facility remained in use until a new building, known informally as the "Cloverleaf Building," was opened across the street in 1976.

Current Columbia St. Mary's CEO Leo P. Birdeau made sure to immerse himself in St. Mary's history when he came on the job.

"I did a lot of reading on both St. Mary's and Columbia Hospitals," Birdeau said. "These are tough times and I like to tell our staff that, these three nuns came here from Maryland, on stage coaches, to what was then a frontier town. They had no money and they found a way to establish a hospital.

"Those are tough times. Those are challenges."

At the same time, the 1995 formation of Columbia-St. Mary's brought Columbia Hospital, another East Side institution, into the same fold. Columbia was founded in 1909 and moved into its current location near the UWM campus in 1919.

Over the years, both hospitals were known for groundbreaking and innovative medial care.

In addition to becoming the state's first public hospital, in 1861 St. Mary's doctors performed the first kidney resection in modern medical history. In 1959, St. Mary's established Wisconsin's first regional burn center and in 1971, performed the city's first open-hear surgery.

Columbia, too, has been a part of medical history. It was the first hospital to offer a vaccination for diphtheria and the first to offer intravenous treatments for use outside the hospital. In the 1940s, doctors at Columbia performed the city's first cardiac surgery, developed the first artificial kidney and created the Milwaukee Brace, which is still used today to treat scoliosis.

"Today we take another significant step to demonstrate that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," said Dr. David Shapiro, CSM Chief Medical Officer.

Ground was broken on the new hospital in 2005. It will officially open on Oct. 12, when the emergency room at Columbia Hospital closes.



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