Brooke Army Medical Center, born in humble roots, becomes a giant
By SIG CHRISTENSON | San Antonio Express-News | Published: January 31, 2015
SAN ANTONIO (Tribune News Service) — Brooke Army Medical Center was born amid a wave of construction in San Antonio during the Depression, but its history was rooted in a rustic military during the past century, one whose growth would be fueled by advances in health care and war.
How it began and where it would go is one of the city’s great stories, for while BAMC was a building, it became much, much more. Over 170 years, San Antonio would become the home of Army medicine, serving as a hub of clinical care where lives are saved and rehabilitated. Over 60 of those years, the ornate seven-story hospital serving as its beating heart.
But BAMC also took wing as a platform for growth that led to the Alamo City anchoring the Army’s headquarters for battlefield research and the Defense Department’s sole burn center. It evolved into an enterprise that makes medicine one of the top sectors of today’s local economy, benefiting military personnel, their families and civilians in a 22-county trauma care region in southwest Texas.
“I would say it was that medical center of gravity to which we anchored ourselves throughout the end of World War II, Korea and Vietnam,” said BAMC’s current commander, Col. (Dr.) Evan Renz. “So you had three major historic wartime periods in our country that were linked to that base, that medical hub. I don’t think that’s trivial.”
Military medicine in San Antonio goes back to America’s 11th president, James. K. Polk, in 1845. Texas joined the union just 10 years after its birth as a nation, and the change in status brought the Army’s first unit, the 2nd Dragoon Regiment, to town eight months before statehood. The first medical department soldier to practice here, assistant surgeon John C. Glen, is thought to have worked out of a tent near the Alamo.
No one seems to know where patients were treated in the 16 years U.S. troops were in San Antonio before the Civil War or the location of a Confederate medical facility that was here. But with the war over and Union troops back in Texas, the first known Army hospital operated out of a private home south of Commerce Street, across from today’s Rivercenter Mall. That was a modest hospital compared with those to come — two stories with a kitchen, dining room and store room, as well as three wards. The biggest ward was 930 square feet, enough for eight beds.
A modest 12-bed hospital was added to the post after the Army moved its quartermaster depot into the just-built Quadrangle in the late 1870s. Tents and temporary barracks popped up, as did the hospital building on the northwest corner of the post.
An Army history described the building as board-and-batten construction, and that included a dispensary that doubled as an office, a hospital steward’s room, dining room and kitchen. The facility was replaced in 1886 and again 22 years later. The 84-bed Station Hospital, as it was called, was replaced in 1938 by a much larger facility by the same name.
At 418 beds, it sported brick and cast-stone walls, tile and terrazzo floors and tile roofs on the north end of Fort Sam’s MacArthur Parade Field. Bearing columns and elaborate stonework at its entrance, with a Latin inscription, it was renamed Brooke General Hospital four years later. It was named for Brig. Gen. Roger Brooke, a Station Hospital commander from 1929-33 who instituted the first routine chest X-ray in military medicine.
A Sandy Springs, Md., native who emerged as one of the Army’s most knowledgeable internal medicine experts, the soft-spoken Brooke studied tuberculosis early in his career and launched the first overseas recruit depot at Fort Slocum, N.Y., giving X-rays as a matter of course in 1935.
“Dedicated not to Us, but solely to the Health of Mankind,” states the inscription of the old BAMC, which served wounded troops over the next half century, starting with World War II.
This was the first of two hospitals known as Brooke Army Medical Center. It would house hundreds of patients who were veterans of conflicts ranging from World War I to the 1989 Panama invasion and Gulf War I. Presidents came there, with President George H.W. Bush visiting troops wounded in Panama, and Lyndon Baines Johnson coming for occasional medical exams. He slept in a spacious, seventh-floor suite that had a commanding view of the city.
The suite is now used as office working space for personnel with U.S. Army South, which moved into the old BAMC, as it became known, after a $25 million renovation project. Previously based in Puerto Rico, Army South brought 1,250 military and civilian jobs to town and an estimated $160 million annual economic impact when it moved into the revamped building in 2004.
The old BAMC was shuttered for the same reason all the other hospitals were going back to the 1870s — it had simply outlived its usefulness.
Growth was a constant. By 1891, Fort Sam was the Army’s second largest post and it got even bigger after World War II began. The prospect of large-scale casualties prompted BAMC to convert a 220-soldier barracks for enlistees into patient wards.
Over the years, dozens of buildings had sprouted around the hospital to keep pace with demand, complicating patient-care efforts. A new BAMC opened in 1996, the same year the old one closed, and it was expanded yet again only a decade later as part of the 2005 base-closure round, which created a joint-service hospital complex.
Both BAMCs are now part of the sprawling San Antonio Military Medical Center, home to the Institute of Surgical Research, the Center for the Intrepid, the Warrior and Family Support Center, four Fisher Houses for wounded troops and their families, and joint-enlisted medical training.
If no longer a hospital, the old BAMC still symbolizes a deep medical legacy.
“There were huge advances made in research in kidney injury and dialysis,” said Renz, the BAMC commander. “In fact, I think one of the first dialysis machines at least in the military, if not the country, was used there. That was one thing, and of course the burn center was there for the whole time, and so a revolution in burn care occurred in that building.”
A brief history of medicine at Fort Sam Houston
1879: First Post Hospital opens in a single-story wooden building.
1886: First permanent hospital is built.
1908: An 84-bed Station Hospital is built on the post’s west side.
1929: Brig. Gen. Roger Brooke takes command of Station Hospital.
1936: Cornerstone of the new 418-bed Station Hospital is laid in July.
1938: Station Hospital is operational by November. It cost $3 million to build.
1942: Station Hospital, also known as Building 1000, is renamed Brooke General Hospital.
1946: Brooke General Hospital is renamed Brooke Army Medical Center as Fort Sam Houston is chosen as the new site for the U.S. Army Medical Field Service School.
1987: Construction of new BAMC starts.
1996: New BAMC opens.
1999: Delta Force commandos strike the old, vacant BAMC in a Feb. 19 mock attack.
2001: BAMC added to the National Register of Historic Places.
2007: Center for the Intrepid opens.
2008: Groundbreaking ceremony marks construction and expansion of BAMC, ordered three years earlier by a Pentagon base-closure commission.
2011: The new 760,000-square-foot Consolidated Tower opens at BAMC.
Sources: San Antonio Military Medical Center, Express-News files
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