We now know it as Memorial Hermann Hospital but from 1925 to the late 1990s, Houstonians knew it as simply Hermann Hospital, the hospital George built. Today, Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, affiliated with and physically adjoining the UTHealth Medical School on every floor, is impressive by any standard. But who was George Hermann?
George Hermann (1843–1914), was a lifelong bachelor who made his Houston fortune off lumber, real estate, small cattle operations, and thirty acres of “blackjack” land he had bought for thirty-five cents an acre during a poker game. Located just north of Houston, the land was considered of little value and Hermann is said to have offered to trade it for a horse and a mule or twenty-five cents an acre. Luckily for him, he found no takers, as this was the site of the early Humble Oil Field (1905), and the frugal bachelor with holes in his favorite sweater was soon making $50,000 a week in royalties. Others would cash in as well. Upon hearing of the find, two young men a hundred miles away in Beaumont, William Stamps Farish and Robert E. Lee Blaffer, decided to form a drilling partnership, launching a company we now know as ExxonMobil.
If we go back in George Hermann’s life story, it gets even more interesting. His parents were from Davos Switzerland. His father had suffered a saber wound to the leg fighting with Napoleon and quickly decided a career baking bread and pastries might be safer than saber fighting. He went to confectionery school in Paris and brought his bride to the United States in the early days of Houston. In 1836 the Allen brothers had purchased the 6,000 acres along Buffalo Bayou where our downtown stands today. Drive down Main Street until it meets the bayou and you are at the site where all Houston commerce began. The streets were muddy during rains and the buildings were sparse to say the least. Some lived in tents in the area and a fellow named Gail Borden was busy surveying the early lots. He would later find a better paying job when he figured out how to condense milk.
The first son born to the Hermanns was named George but that son died in a hunting accident. They had another son named George in 1843 in the new home they had built on the site of our current City Hall Annex. This begs the question, would there even be a Hermann Hospital if the first George had lived?
George’s father taught his son to be the best he could be at whatever he enjoyed and save his money and buy the land under his business. Hermann’s dad was a successful baker and business was good as barges and small sloops loaded with cotton and other goods crowded the banks of Buffalo Bayou near the Hermann bakery. The bayou was much deeper in those days and one day would widen on the east side of downtown into the Houston Ship Channel. George’s dad also bought lots around downtown as his business grew and taught his son to hold on to them as investments.
While George wasn’t interested in baking, he was interested in horses, sawmills, and cattle. That would be his forte and after a joining a Texas cavalry for service during the Civil War, he returned to Houston and went into business with his best friends the Settegast, a family name you might recognize through today’s Settegast-Kopf Funeral Home. Shortly after the Civil War, George’s parents died along with other siblings and it was George who would inherit the lots his father had purchased and add his own land acquisitions that complimented the sawmills and small cattle operations he oversaw.
While his oil royalties on that small plot north of Houston made him a very wealthy man in the early 1900s, such wealth hardly mattered to George Hermann. He was frugal and preferred to save rather than spend. When his friends dined for breakfast downtown in Market Square, they remember George often sat outside finishing an apple pulled from his pocket. Hermann would never marry saying wives were just too expensive. On Sundays he could be seen riding his favorite horse Leo around town visiting families who faced difficult times due to health issues. He championed hard working family folks who were down and out due to health issues. Frugal as he was, he had a lifelong distain for physician fees.
George Hermann took only one vacation—an extravagant adventure for the penny-pinching bachelor who traveled to Switzerland in June of 1885 to find his long-lost Swiss relatives in Davos. Passing through New York City on his way abroad, he saw Central Park, admired its beauty, and decided that Houston should also have a large park. True to his disdain for doctor’s fees, he kept a diary on his journey through Europe that is filled with entries complaining about the prices doctors charged along the way.
While Houstonians would benefit from the 285-acre park he donated June 7, 1914 (increased through additional gifts from his estate to 400 acres after his death), his search for relatives was less than successful; the ones he located had learned he was a wealthy Texan (even before his oil income), and they wanted in on his success. He hurried back to Houston, never to search for relatives again. After he died his Swiss relatives would pursue their claims on his fortune through a series of lawsuits, all unsuccessful; they never collected a penny of Hermann’s fortune.
More important than the park, Hermann also wanted his city to have a charity hospital. He provided for one in his will, bequeathing the land and a large portion of his $2.6 million estate for a public hospital—“for the benefit of the poor, indigent and infirm residents of the City of Houston.” When he died of stomach cancer in 1914 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, his friends, the Settegast, brought his body back to Houston via train and the entire city turned out for his funeral procession through downtown to Glenwood Cemetery.
Hermann Hospital opened to citywide fanfare and celebration in 1925. Behind it was a 134 acre forest that twenty years later would become the Texas Medical Center as future stories will tell. Across the street from Hermann’s hospital was another monument built by a wealthy Houstonian, William Marsh Rice. He had left his money to create an institution of higher education that opened in 1912 and is known today as Rice University but that is also a story for another day.
‘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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