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‘Bout Time

A history of UTHealth & the Texas Medical Center

M.D. Anderson: More than a hospital name

Posted: October 09, 2014
Monroe Dunaway Anderson

Monroe Dunaway Anderson

In a previous ‘Bout Time post, I told the story of Monroe Dunaway Anderson’s $21 million fortune and the foundation he created that led to the development of our Texas Medical Center and a University of Texas world-class cancer hospital honoring his name.

Left untold was the story about Monroe Anderson himself. You may know he was a bachelor and that he arrived in Houston in 1907. But what was he like, and what did his relatives and friends have to say about him? That story is as interesting as the charitable foundation he left behind.

Born in Jackson, Tenn., on June 29, 1873, to James Wisdom Anderson and Mary Ellen Dunaway, Monroe Dunaway Anderson was the sixth of eight Anderson children. His first and middle name is derived from his mother’s father, William Monroe Dunaway. As was traditional at the time, one son would be named for the maternal grandfather. In this way Monroe Dunaway Anderson would be named with the famous initials known around the world today as The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

In hindsight, it is fortunate that Monroe Anderson was even born. A decade before his birth, his father was a new volunteer in the Confederate Army when General Ulysses Grant took Memphis 85 miles northeast of Jackson and then set his sights on Jackson itself. While James Anderson was enjoying lunch at home with his wife, Union soldiers surrounded the house and took him north to Memphis where he would eventually spend two cold winters in a Union prison camp in Ohio. Thanks to a prisoner exchange, James Anderson was released back to home. His son was born eight years later.

It’s a wonderful life

In Jackson, Monroe Anderson was considered a most trusted young man. If you’ve ever seen the 1946 Christmas movie classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, then you have a mental image of Monroe Anderson who, like George Baily (played by Jimmy Stewart), was the most trusted young man in his small town. With only an eighth-grade education, Monroe Anderson was as smart as he was hard-working.

He sat behind the teller’s window of People’s National Bank and learned his way around the world of finance. He watched carefully in the years following the Civil War as farmers and businessmen in the South struggled to rebuild. From his view behind the teller’s window, Monroe studied carefully the good and bad business decisions that were made and learned.

Monroe Anderson in Cotton a Warehouse

Monroe Anderson surveying one of his company’s many cotton

Monroe’s older brother, Frank Anderson, tried working at the bank but found sitting behind a desk not to his liking. What Monroe Anderson had in money sense, Frank had in magnetic personality and charisma. In those days before oil money flowed, Frank Anderson had plans to make his fortune in cotton. Timing was on Frank Anderson’s side as the family of Thomas Munroe and Martha Fletcher (Burdine) Clayton moved from Tupelo, Mississippi to Jackson. The Claytons’ sons, Will and Ben, and daughter, Burdine, would add important dimensions to both Frank Anderson’s and Monroe Anderson’s life stories. Will Clayton, the older son, shared Frank Anderson’s dream of starting a company to purchase, process and sell cotton worldwide. The two became best friends. In a nutshell, the dream team of cotton merchandizing was born. Will Clayton’s sister, Burdine, would fall in love and marry Frank Anderson. The Andersons and Claytons were now family.

Investing $9,000 on Aug. 1, 1904, to launch the Anderson, Clayton and Company, the founding partners of Frank Anderson and Monroe Anderson along with Will Clayton started their new business in Oklahoma City where there was plenty of cotton to be purchased. Ben Clayton soon joined the company. Each had a unique talent that together created a synergy spelling success. The Clayton brothers had worked in New York at the American Cotton Company and brought all they had learned about establishing international banking and transportation networks including expertise in railroads, shipping and ports worldwide. Ever ask yourself what Houston’s NBC television affiliate, KPRC, stands for? Answer: Port, Rail and Cotton.


The hurricane of 1900 nearly took Galveston off the map. In many ways Houston took center stage as the state’s center of commerce after that hurricane and the discovery of oil at Spindletop near Beaumont four months later on Jan. 1, 1901. Federal support for a ship channel was in the works and Houston was on a roll.

In 1907, Monroe Anderson was sent to Houston to explore the opportunities our thriving city offered. He never left and the company, in time, moved all operations to Houston.

Monroe Dunaway Anderson

Monroe Dunaway Anderson

Monroe Anderson moved into the Main-Bender Hotel on Main Street at Walker Street, an exclusive new hotel built in 1912 just in time for the arrival of the international dignitaries in Houston for the opening of William Marsh Rice’s gift to the city — Rice Institute (now Rice University). One can only imagine the impression this had on Monroe Anderson as he watched the international fanfare Rice’s estate generated as Rice University was born. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Upon arrival in Houston Monroe Anderson set up shop for the fledgling company in Houston’s Cotton Exchange Building, an 1884 building at 202 Travis Street that still stands to this day. Anderson would live in downtown hotels as was common in those days. Each morning he walked to work with his sack lunch in hand.

The hotel’s bell captain, Oscar Collins, who became the locker room attendant at the River Oaks Country Club years later, recalled he had no idea all those years he was holding the door for one of Houston’s richest men. “I thought he was a mild-mannered shoe salesman or floorwalker in one of the nearby stores,” he said.

In time Anderson, Clayton and Company would hire nearly 800 employees, and Monroe Anderson is said to have known each by first name. Times were good and a fortune was made as all company operations moved from Oklahoma to Houston. A young fellow from Atlanta named Lamar Fleming, Jr. had so impressed the Clayton brothers during their stints at the American Cotton Company in New York that the company recruited him in 1911. Fleming would become a partner and future president of the company after Monroe Anderson’s death in 1939. Take a walk behind Baylor College of Medicine from TIRR Memorial Hermann to Ben Taub Hospital and you’re walking on Lamar Fleming Street.

The man behind the name

Who could better tell us more about Monroe Anderson than his nephew Thomas Dunaway Anderson? Son of Monroe Anderson’s brother Frank, Tom Anderson, who lived from 1912 to 2007, was a longtime member and former chair of MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Board of Visitors.

I had the opportunity to meet Tom Anderson on several occasions and collect a few stories in my role as a science writer working with R. Lee Clark, the cancer hospital’s founding president. Tom Anderson, along with Don Macon, a Texas Medical Center historian, put a book together years ago about Monroe Anderson including Tom Anderson’s recollections of his famous uncle. The book provides insights including an early lesson in money management Monroe Anderson provided: “Once he gave my 7-year-old brother Bob a cap pistol and a quarter, but no caps for the pistol. Bob badly wanted some caps, so Uncle Mon finally admitted that he had a box of caps in his pocket, but they were for sale for twenty-five cents. With tears in his eyes, the little boy surrendered the quarter in exchange for the caps, and retained for a lifetime a small lesson on the value of money.”

Houston Cotton Exchange

Houston Cotton Exchange

Frugal as Monroe Anderson was – even knowing the cost of every pencil ordered for the company – he was a generous man both for his employees and his city. When his brother Frank Anderson died at 57, Monroe was deeply affected, and he decided to do something about his workers lacking a formal pension plan. Recalls nephew Tom Anderson, only 12 at the time: “By that time Uncle Mon and Will Clayton (my mother’s brother) virtually owned the entire company, placing them in a position to award $10,000 in preferred stock of a special issue to all employees with ten years of service. This was done two times, a couple of years apart, with provision for the funds to remain in trust for the benefit of the employee’s legal heirs. …the aggregate of these trusts must have been in the eight-figure category.”

A bachelor, Monroe Anderson especially enjoyed Sunday dinners with his extended family. Frugal to the penny, he made one exception and bought a Cadillac. He parked the car carefully in a downtown garage and drove it every Sunday. Another weekend pastime he enjoyed was going to the coast fishing with his attorney friend and fishing buddy Col. William Bates.

The now defunct Houston Press in 1958 recorded that in 1931 Monroe told a local banker he was spending too much time at work in the Cotton Exchange Building and needed an outside interest. A young wildcatter in his early 20s named Glenn McCarthy (who would in 1949 open the Shamrock Hotel and was also the inspiration for the movie, Giant) was identified in need of finances for his third attempt to strike oil near Conroe. Monroe Anderson agreed to finance a quarter of the young wildcatter’s costs.

Not knowing a thing about oil wells, Monroe Anderson decided to go see for himself how McCarthy was going to get oil out of the ground. In the words of legendary reporter, Tommy Thompson: “The big Cadillac bounced across the rough trail leading up to the drilling site, eased to a stop, and out jumped an aging, nattily dressed cotton millionaire with all the agility of an oil field roughneck.”

Citizen Memorial plaque in Jackson, Tenn.

Citizen Memorial plaque in Jackson, Tenn.

Monroe Anderson, upon inquiring, was told “no oil yet but sit tight.” After hours of sitting in his car he climbed onto the rig in the late night hours just as the well spewed out crude oil drenching him head to toe. In Thompson’s words, “…he slipped and plunged into a nearby mud pit…he recovered quickly and quipped to the workmen coming to his assistance, ‘Your oil field mud is a lot slimier than our good cotton field mud.’ ”

The Houston Press feature story also provides us a glimpse of the Monroe Anderson in the office. Shorthanded during World War I, one overworked employee in a rush cabled the wrong price to the company’s representative in England, a mistake that represented a $25,000 loss for the company. The poor employee was horrified and immediately confessed the error to his boss. Reports Thompson: “Mr. Anderson listened to his story and didn’t say anything for a minute. And then he spoke. ‘John, I understand we’re buying firebuckets for the warehouse at a dollar and fifty cents each. I know where we can get them for ninety eight cents.’ It was Mr. Anderson’s way of saying, ‘Forget it.’ The subject never came up again.

On a warm summer day in 1938, Monroe Anderson sat at the counter of the Majestic Grill on Travis Street at Rusk Street having lunch with business associates when his arm went numb. He insisted on being taken back to his hotel where his physician, Dr. Joe Henry Graves, gave him a sedative and found nurses to remain at his bedside. Shortly thereafter he was moved to Baptist Memorial Hospital and a month later to a home on Sunset Boulevard, which was purchased for his convalescence and the only home he ever owned.

Monroe's gravestone in Jackson, Tennessee

Monroe's gravestone in Jackson, Tenn.

A year after his stroke and suffering from pre-existing kidney problems, he died on Aug. 6, 1939, at 66. Taken by train to Memphis and by car to Jackson, his family and close friends returned Monroe Anderson to the family plot in Tennessee were he rests near his parents and other family members.

My late friend Don Macon summarized beautifully Monroe Anderson’s legacy through his foundation in his book, Monroe Dunaway Anderson: His Legacy. Concluded Macon in the introduction of the book: “Like a fine strain of cotton perhaps, carefully tended and skillfully carried to a bountiful yield each season, these endowments, through wise and careful management, some for more than a half-century, continue to build their resources and to spread their benefits year after year for the good of all the people they serve.”

If only the most trusted young man from Jackson, Tenn., could come back to Houston for a day and see what he created — the Texas Medical Center and the cancer hospital bearing his name. How delighted he would be and no doubt a bit embarrassed by the fame. Rest in peace, Uncle Mon … and thank you.

Bryant Boutwell

‘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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