The History of Children’s of Alabama

By on July 1, 2011

Children's of Alabama

It began in 1911 with 12 beds in an Episcopal church parish house, and 100 years later has become one of the premier pediatric hospitals in the country. For proof, consider that in May, ten of Children’s Hospital’s pediatric specialty services were ranked among the top 50 in the country in U.S. News & World Report. And the hospital continues to grow—a 750,000 square-foot, $400 million expansion in downtown Birmingham will be named the Russell campus upon completion. To celebrate its centennial, Children’s has launched a website, www.childrensal100th.org, chronicling its history so far and dreams for the future. Read on for an excerpt from the journey.

A local minister, Rev. Carl Henckell, had been concerned for years about the lack of healthcare available to the area’s children—especially those from poor families. He was moved to action after a young mother contacted him about her baby, who was suffering from diphtheria and had no place to go. Henckell enlisted the help of other clergymen, health professionals and concerned church members who started a movement to establish a free hospital for children only. So it was that the Holy Innocents Hospital Association was formed in 1911 under the auspices of the church.

The following year, the Hospital opened its doors in an Episcopal church parish house. Within months the Association had rented a simple frame residence and equipped it with 12 beds. Among the poor, the news spread quickly and the parents came, filling the Hospital with their ill and injured children.

Along with church sponsorship, the Hospital relied on the community—in particular, female volunteers—to keep it going. They raised funds, scrubbed floors, sat with sick children and managed the Hospital on a day-to-day basis. One of these women was Caroline Johnson, a young mother who had adopted Birmingham as her home.

“My great-grandmother had a tradition of being involved with her family and she believed it was important that this city —this new city of hers—have quality healthcare for her family,” says Walker Jones, longtime member of the Board of Trustees of Children’s of Alabama. “I believe that children were her passion and so when she was looking to make a difference in this community that’s where she began—her love of children and the desire to have great healthcare, not only for her
children but for the children of the community.”

Thanks to the support of Mrs. Johnson and others, Holy Innocents Hospital Association soon had enough funds to renovate the house and provide space for 25 young patients.
In 1914, the named was changed from Holy Innocents to The Children’s Hospital. Now more firmly established, the Hospital was soon able to move into an impressive new brick facility. A second building featuring an outpatient clinic, nurses’ quarters and urgently-needed operating rooms was added in 1932.

For the next several decades, Birmingham women continued to raise money and run the Hospital, and Children’s continued to grow. Yet it never lost sight of its original mission: Every child who needed help was treated. No one was turned away. By the early 1950s, however, the Hospital was
simply running out of real estate on which to grow.

So the still all-female board of directors began planning for an impressive new facility that would open its doors at 1600 5th Avenue South in 1961. That same year, Children’s entered into a collaboration with the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Pediatrics. That partnership continued on into the new century, and even today is helping the Hospital maintain a
leadership role in pediatrics nationwide.

As we celebrate 100 years of caring for children, Children’s of Alabama is the premier pediatric health system for Alabama and neighboring states—and is also ranked among the nation’s top hospitals for children with a number of pediatric programs receiving national acclaim.

Children's of AlabamaIn 2012, Children’s will move into a new facility so that it may better meet the challenges of this exciting era. In recognition of the transformational $25 million gift made by Ben and Luanne Russell, the expansion facility will be named the Benjamin Russell Hospital for Children in honor of Mr. Russell’s grandfather, legendary entrepreneur Benjamin Russell (1876-1941). Additionally, the entire downtown campus will be known as The Russell Campus.

This move will make it possible for Children’s to treat more patients, to offer additional services and
to, one day in the future, serve the needs of children whose mothers have not yet been born. The new Hospital will have advanced surgical capabilities that will enable us to provide transplant services to children with life-threatening liver, kidney and heart problems. And it will be family-centered so parents can be integral to the healing process.

All of the rooms are designed to insure the best possible care for our patients and the comfort of their families. The building itself is environmentally responsible, promoting wellness and good health for all its occupants. Jones says it is a source of pride for her that the concern for children her great-grandmother so  fervently embraced has endured throughout the Hospital’s century-long history. “When you walk in the door at Children’s, it is all about love,” she says. “It’s about nurses and doctors just wrapping their arms around those sick children and their families who are desperate to find help for their children. It’s an incredible place and you feel it the minute you walk in the door.”

“We are so fortunate to have Children’s of Alabama here in our state,” she adds. “It is world class. It allows all the children across Alabama to have the very best healthcare available. Regardless of how sick you are, Children’s is there for you.”

Although a lot has changed since Rev. Henckell voiced his eloquent appeal for help for the children of the poor, Children’s does, indeed, remain a place of hope in the face of sickness, disease and life-threatening injuries. And the familiar children in the red ball remind us daily of our simple calling: To use all the knowledge and tools available to us—and to use them heart and soul—to mend little kids.

About Sara Holland

Editor for Alabama Baby & Child magazine, Central Alabama's resource for new, expectant, and hopeful parents. We are where moms connect!