CURRENT TEMPORARY EXHIBITION

Moab’s Legacy of Care: A Brief History of Medical Services

Moab’s medical history is defined by dedicated caregivers both inside and outside hospital walls. From doctors riding for hours on horseback making house calls to nurses hosting supply drives during pandemics, the Moab community has been adapting to rural healthcare challenges for over a century. In times of financial hardship, the question has been posed, What is a hospital worth? But this question inspires yet another conversation: what is a community’s health worth? Whether excellence is achieved with a larger staff, state-of-the-art equipment, or specialized facilities, it’s the people of Moab and its medical professionals who perpetuate a legacy of healthcare excellence in Moab.

Before a Hospital

Early healthcare in the Canyonlands region did not come easy. Medicine was administered in the home with remedies dispensed by women such as Gillie Ann Brack and Sarah Stewart.
Known affectionately as “Grandma Brack” and “Aunt Sarah”, both women were trained midwives and delivered hundreds of babies in locations far from any established medical practice. Stewart settled in Moab in 1880 and acted as Moab’s first doctor and nurse from her home on the corner of Center and Main Street, where Wells Fargo is today. In 1897, the local telephone company owner, Justus N. Corbin convinced a doctor in Ordway, Colorado, to establish a practice in Moab. This doctor, John W. “Doc” Williams accepted the position of “Health Officer” of Grand County for $150 a year and became the town’s sole practitioner until 1920. Williams was known for traveling great distances on horseback to patients carrying saddlebags of medicinals. These items can be viewed on exhibit at the Moab Museum today. These early providers, among others, personify the resilience and perseverance required to provide medical care in a rural desert community.

Many individuals and practices contributed to Moab’s history of healthcare, beyond those listed here. Recognition is due to the many nurses, non-Western practitioners, pharmacists, dentists, ophthalmologists, hospice care workers, Native healers, and others whose expertise supplied Moab with a diverse range of options for keeping the community well.

Grand County Hospital

In January 1919, Moab was plagued by the Spanish Influenza, impacting more than half of the population. Telegrams were sent to the Secretary of State requesting more physicians to assist Doc Williams, who was working around the clock as the sole doctor in town. Dr. C. M. Clark from American Fork responded to the call, and together Clark, Williams, and numerous nurses worked in and out of homes, the courthouse, and the high school gymnasium, which had been utilized to accommodate the increase in patients.

The need for more than one doctor-inspired conversations about establishing a hospital. In October 1919, the Moab Hospital Company was established with John Peterson serving as president and H.G. Green, W.R. McConkie, J.P. Miller, C.A. Hammond, Don Taylor, and C.A. Robertson as directors. Later, the Grand County Hospital was incorporated for $5,000 in a house on Center Street, near today’s Canyonlands Best Western Motel.  In 1921, Doc Williams unofficially retired, and new medical personnel were relocating to Moab. The hospital was led by Dr. Clark, who closed his practice in American Fork and shipped all of his medical equipment to Moab. Maude Eno, who arrived to assist Doc Williams during the pandemic, also stayed and helped to run the new hospital. On relocating to Moab on November 11, 1920, Dr. Clark wrote:

“By establishing the local hospital and putting skilled attendants in charge, a long-felt need has been supplied, and a distinct step forward has been taken toward safeguarding the health and lives of local people and making Moab a better place in which to live. There is absolutely no reason why any hospital work should leave the town, and it is to be hoped that none will do so” – Dr. C. M . Clark

Grand Valley Times September 5, 1919.
Grand County Hospital [1950s].

In May of 1920, a surgeon in the United States Army, I. W. (Isaac Walter) Allen, relocated to Moab from northern Utah and served as the main doctor for the next thirty years. Like Doc Williams, Dr. Allen was no stranger to house calls on horseback in the early days but introduced more modern practices as the years advanced. Automotive transit enabled Dr. Allen to host inoculation clinics around the region for diphtheria, diptussis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, smallpox, and tuberculosis. He bought the Grand County Hospital’s first X-ray machine in 1926 (for $1,250!), and later drove a mobile unit around to X-ray patients’ lungs for tuberculosis screenings. While it was common for doctors to come and go for employment and resources elsewhere, Dr. Allen remained in Moab to see his community through challenging times.

Moab overcame many health crises thanks to the Grand County Hospital, an impressive feat considering the limited facilities available. At the time, doctors and nurses were still reusing medical instruments, boiling them between uses on a coal-wood range!

I. W. Allen Memorial Hospital

Additional practitioners in Moab sustained the region’s medical needs for many years. Nevertheless, with the town’s population and popularity growing, Moab needed an even larger hospital. The citizens of Moab, led by the Chamber of Commerce, raised partial funds in conjunction with a county grant for a new hospital valued at $625,000. In 1957, I.W. Allen Memorial Hospital opened, touting state-of-the-art equipment and a new staff of doctors and nurses.

“This fine hospital which we are dedicating today is a perfect example of the spirit of Moab. It is a symbol of the community outlook, a signpost to the planned future.”

- Utah Governor George D. Clyde at the Allen Memorial Hospital dedication

Like the hospital’s namesake, the new professionals were quickly beloved by the community for their dedication and service. Dr. Winston Ekren, Dr. Paul Mayberry, Dr. Jay Munsey, and Dr. Carroll Goon, as well as the doctors who followed, were extensively involved with local affairs. Medical personnel organized with various entities throughout the community on issues including cancer awareness and mineral resource exploration. Helen Corbin Carter, the granddaughter of J.N. Corbin, and other nurses worked for the American Legion Auxiliary and reorganized the local Red Cross chapter. Local papers provided a close account of hospital happenings, the status of patients receiving care, and expressions of thanks to medical staff from recovered patients.

These exchanges of information fostered a relationship between the hospital and its community and continued in later decades when the hospital was facing financial hardship. A letter to the editor in a 1993 Times-Independent newspaper asked, “What’s a hospital worth?”—advocating public support for the hospital that had medically and economically carried Moab for decades. Furthermore, this important question prompted a continuance of the legacy of care that would take Moab well into the future.

Moab Regional Hospital

More than a century after the arrival of its first healthcare providers, Moab now boasts the Moab Regional Hospital. Moab Regional is a Level IV Trauma Center with dedicated professionals based in and out of Moab. For those unable to travel, a newly dedicated shuttle service is available to transport patients to and from their hospital appointments. Additionally, a “Community Health Needs Assessment” is conducted every three years, and informs priorities for improving health care in Moab. In June 2022, the Assessment prompted the addition of a new Recovery Center to the hospital’s campus.

Among the new architecture and services, traces of the past can still be found along the hospital’s corridors. Inside the main entrance, an old telephone booth from Allen Memorial can be found, which was historically used to make many phone calls—both good and bad. A bench constructed from an Allen Memorial Hospital bed sits outside the Canyonlands Care Center entrance. And historic photographs line the walls of Canyonlands Care Center, a long-term care facility located adjacent to Moab Regional Hospital, that ensures our senior community members can age here in their home community.

While medical care looks different than it has in the past, many hardships remain the same. Those in need of care still encounter challenges. At times resources are scarce and the economy fluctuates. Pandemics, too, have re-emerged, threatening patients and medical professional’s lives. No matter the trial, Moabites respond to these hardships with the same resilience, community connection, and care as always.

Acknowledgments

This exhibit was curated by the Moab Museum in collaboration with Moab Regional Hospital. Special thanks are due to the Johnston, Mayberry, Pittman, and Williams families for their assistance in sharing and curating these stories.

Share Your Story

Do you have a memory of a time you were working at a hospital in Moab, or a time when you were treated? Share your story with the museum at info@moabmuseum.org.