John Freeman was all smiles. On a bright sunny day in 1976 he stood next to The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center's president, Lee Clark, admiring the panoramic view of the Texas Medical Center that glittered in the sunlight before them. Clark and his wife, Bertha, lived on the top floor of the old Mayfair Hotel that occupied on Holcombe the footprint that is today MD Anderson’s Rotary House International located just a stone’s throw east of UTHealth’s School of Public Health and School of Nursing.
On this day I stand behind Clark and Freeman as they peer across the rapidly growing medical center from their rooftop vantage point to celebrate the dedication of the cancer hospital’s new Lutheran Hospital Pavilion before them. Overnight Clark’s original cancer hospital that first accepted patients on March 19, 1954, has doubled in size. Both are beaming over the accomplishment as photographers click away.
Three decades earlier the Texas Medical Center we know today looked very different to Freeman. It was Freeman and his law colleague, Colonel William Bates of the firm Fulbright and Crooker (today Fulbright and Jaworski, LLP), who advised their friend and client, Monroe Dunaway Anderson, to put his cotton merchandising fortune of nearly $21 million into a foundation. Monroe, a lifelong bachelor who died in 1939 from complications of a stroke, made it clear that he wanted his foundation to support -- in his precise words -- “the promotion of health, science, education, and advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding among people.” Upon Monroe’s untimely death, Freeman and Bates were left to figure out the rest by themselves.
It was Freeman and Bates (joined by Houston banker Horace Wilkins) who saw the 134 acre, mosquito-infested forest behind George Hermann’s hospital (opened 1925) and said this is ideal for adding a hospital or two…or maybe more. Placing an ad in the Houston Post on Dec. 13, 1943, with the headline, “Cure Through Research. Vote for the Texas Medical Center Tuesday…,” they urged citizens to approve the sale of the forest, which at the time was owned by the city and required citizen approval to sell.
Actually, it was Will Hogg, son of the first native-born Texas Governor, Stephen Hogg, who had owned the land in the 1920s but his dream to move the UT Medical Branch from Galveston to sit across the street from the new Rice Institute (opened 1912) went nowhere. He then sold the land back to the city at his cost where it sat idle. After all, this was land old Houstonians considered too far from downtown to be of value.
Freeman and Bates saw things differently. The referendum passed and their vision of turning the forest into a medical city was launched. Freeman, a native Houstonian, had a reputation for hard work and accomplishing every goal he set. As a younger man he had left Houston for Chicago and law school. Having no money, he had to figure out how to pay his way through law school so he worked in the department store of a man who offered him a job on the street. That man was Marshall Field and Freeman came to understand what hard work and vision could yield as he watched Marshall Field’s enterprise grow.
Monroe Dunaway Anderson, his brother Frank and brother-in-law Will Clayton had started the Anderson, Clayton and Company on Aug. 1, 1904, to broker cotton from farmer to market on a worldwide scale. They started in Oklahoma City with $9,000 and three years later set an office up in Houston where they amassed a fortune. Both Freeman and Bates had the complete trust of their friend and wealthy client, Monroe, or “Uncle Mon” as Frank’s children called him.
After Monroe’s death they set to work and put their ears to the ground. In 1941, plans to establish a new cancer hospital and division of cancer research, to be built and operated by The University of Texas, were introduced by the 47th Texas Legislature, through House Bill 268. Freeman and Bates rushed to Austin and suggested they could provide land and money to bring that hospital to Houston if the new hospital would be named in honor of Monroe Dunaway Anderson or just MD Anderson for short.
Likewise they went to Dallas and approached Baylor’s struggling medical school with a suggestion that they come to Houston. There would be land and money to help with the move. Unlike the Southwest Medical Foundation in Dallas that had offered some land to Baylor’s school along with a requirement that the medical school surrender a portion of administrative control, Freeman and Bates offered land and money with no interest in running a medical school. The Baylor faculty led by Dean Walter Moursund debated the offer and half decided to come to Houston with Moursund and held their first class in Houston on July 12, 1943, in the temporary quarters of an on old Sears Roebuck warehouse at Waugh and Buffalo Drive (now Allen Parkway). The half that stayed in Dallas became the nucleus for what is today UT Southwestern Medical School.
In time Freeman and Bates convinced Methodist Hospital, then 33 beds at San Jacinto and Rosalee (near Elgin), not to expand across the street on land offered by the Fondren family but to move down to the new forest and accept land and startup funds. If you build it they will come and that’s exactly what happened. Freeman and Bates never let up and they worked tirelessly to honor their friend. They took Monroe’s general idea to do something for health care in Houston and built a Texas-sized medical city. Freeman and Bates are no longer here to admire their accomplishment but the foundation they created in Monroe’s name continues to serve the city with the same dedication they modeled for so many years.
But on this bright day in 1976, an elderly John Freeman’s balding head glistens in the sun as he stands atop the old Mayfair Hotel and gazes over the cancer hospital immediately before him to the construction cranes and new TMC buildings beyond that are framed in the distance by the downtown skyline. Before he takes a seat, he scans one last time to his left admiring Texas Children’s, the Texas Heart Institute, St. Luke’s, and Methodist. Further beyond, over by the red roof of Hermann Hospital, he can barely make out the impressive new seven-story UTHealth Medical School building adjoining Hermann Hospital. A flood within months will christen the new medical school building before it opens but that is another story.
On this day I am a new MD Anderson employee with only 24 months of service and certainly not fully appreciating the historic moment I am living. I hold Freeman's chair as he slowly rises to his feet and turns with an appreciative smile. He’s tall and thin but his eyes are bright and the smile is broad. It is a moment etched in my memory for at that very second in time I am locked into the eyes of the living father of our Texas Medical Center. In connecting the dots of our medical center’s history, John Freeman’s dot should be set in bold and a few font sizes larger than most others. Add a dash of color for his creative vision and commitment to his friend’s dream.
Just four years later at the age of 93 he was gone. He’s buried in Glenwood Cemetery near downtown not far from George Hermann and both spirits live on. Turn east off Fannin just south of George Hermann’s hospital and you’ll drive down Freeman Boulevard into the very heart of our Texas Medical Center. There on your immediate left is our medical school’s new seven-story research building that honors Freeman’s memory in the lobby. It is built on the site of the school’s first two-story building named in his honor and dedicated back in 1972 by none other than President George H. Bush, then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
Throughout our medical center are Freeman auditoriums and lectureships but few today know why. Monroe Anderson would know. And no doubt he would be amazed at what his most trusted of friends accomplished with his dream.
‘Bout Time is about connecting our past to our present. Dr. Bryant Boutwell is the John P. McGovern Professor of Oslerian Medicine at the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics and a Distinguished Teaching Professor. He is the author of two books on the history of Houston and the Texas Medical Center and writes this column to share the stories of our past stories that define who we are and how we got here.
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