Health care is at the center of American society in the early 21st century. Demographically, the aging of the Baby Boomer generation is exponentially driving up demand for services. Scientifically, health care is one of the most important frontiers in an exploding world that is only beginning to explore the implications of sequencing the human genome and various digital technologies. Politically, nothing creates deeper divisions in the electorate, than the debate over finding a way to make health care universally accessible. Economically, the health care sector has emerged as the single largest employer in the metropolitan region.

Against that backdrop, Bethesda, Inc. just released a new history, The Ripple Effect: How Bethesda Transformed Health Care in Cincinnati. Through the lens of one cluster of related organizations, the story of challenge, commitment, skill and willingness to embrace change is told through a cleanly written narrative along with dozens of sidebars and hundreds of photos.

The sweep of Bethesda’s history from 1895 to its merger with Good Samaritan Hospital in 1995 to form TriHealth, to 2016, exposes dozens of critical storylines. It is the opening chapters, however, on the founding and early development that speak powerfully to another important contemporary discussion, the role of women in American life.

What is revealed might surprise many people. Women who joined religious organizations such as the German Methodist Deaconesses (or Roman Catholic), though they were dressed in uniforms that seem drab and backwards, were entrepreneurs and innovators who became managers and leaders of large, complex and costly enterprises.

Put simply, these religious women were among the earliest to successfully challenge America’s many glass ceilings.

The German Methodist Deaconesses were “pioneer professional women” who left their families to live in community. Although providing health care wasfoundational, they understood their mission to also include relieving the suffering of the poor.

In addition to tending the sick in the first “hospitals” and care facilities, deaconesses systematically visited the homes of the poor. They carried Care Baskets filled with food, clothes, medicine and toys. Deaconess Martha Pflueger advised a young candidate to always include a dishrag, “You will see a lot of dirty dishes when you get there.”

They also established a nursery on Race Street in Over-the-Rhine to care for the children of poor women. Although daycare and early childhood education have become necessary for middle and upper class women in the last 25 years, poor women have always had to work.

In 1926 Bethesda dedicated a new five-story, 159-bed modern hospital on Oak Street off Reading in Mt. Auburn. Deaconess Bertha Ott, the first licensed pharmacist in Ohio, oversaw the

 filling of thousands of prescriptions. Deaconess Anna Pfeiffer managed all the medical records of patients. Deaconess Minnie Draher, who graduated from the Deaconess Nursing School in 1901 and did post-graduate work at Johns Hopkins, was the superintendent of nursing. Deaconess Lulla Klugel headed the all-important maternity department, while Deaconess Maria Buss supervised what would be known today as occupational therapy.

Louise Golder was the leader of the initial group of German-speaking deaconesses founded in 1896. For 32 years she guided decisions on training, garb, retirement and pensions. She established the Dorcas Institute to prepare women to serve the poor as well as the Bethesda School of Nursing.

From the very beginning, the Deaconesses collaborated with others. The Rev. Christian Golder, Louise’s brother, was the co-founder of the effort. Dr. Samuel Geiser led the medical staff for 25 years. Women not called to be deaconesses enrolled in the Nursing School and worked side by side with the deaconesses in the hospital. A network of wealthy families including the Gambles, Huenefelds, Kolbes and others made the work possible.

Long-lasting, successful, organizations have many contributors, but they must also have a core leadership with vision and skills to organize and manage. It is clear that it was the German Methodist Deaconesses who broke the culturally limiting stereotypes about women’s roles and gave Bethesda the opportunity to grow into one of Cincinnati’s anchor institutions. 

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