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‘Bout Time

A history of UTHealth & the Texas Medical Center

Who was Ben Taub?

Posted: June 19, 2014
Ben Taub drawing

Line art of Ben Taub

Take a drive around the Texas Medical Center and you’ll see history come alive. The names on buildings and street signs on every corner have a story to tell, including Ben Taub General Hospital. But ask even a veteran employee who has walked these streets for years to say a few words about Ben Taub and you’ll likely draw a blank stare.

So who was Ben Taub? The moniker has adorned the hospital just across from Hermann Park for half a century, and yet few Houstonians have any idea about the man behind the name.  It’s ‘bout time we know.

In a gist, Ben Taub is remembered as a business man and real estate developer whose philanthropy helped transform our city. His dad, Jacob Nathan Taub, who immigrated to Texas from Hungary in 1882, was a tobacco wholesaler. Born in Houston in 1889, Ben was the fourth child of the Taub family. For perspective, Houston was a city of about 27,000 residents at the time. The year before Ben Taub was born, a delegation from Houston went to Washington to appeal before Congress for permission to turn the Buffalo Bayou east of downtown into a deep-water port. And two years after he was born Houston was operating its first electric street cars. 

Ben Taub Hospital

Ben Taub General Hospital

Ben Taub grew up in Houston and attended the Welch Preparatory School, a new academy for boys that opened in 1896 in a house at Polk Street and Jackson Street. Now that’s important to our Texas Medical Center because the respected school was founded by Chris Welch whose cousin, Robert Alonzo Welch, had a huge influence on scientific research in our city. Let’s digress a little in the interest of connecting dots.

Robert Welch, who arrived in Houston from South Carolina in August 1886 at 14, made a fortune in oil, sulfur, and real estate. A bachelor like Houston movers and shakers Monroe Anderson and George Hermann, he would build an impressive estate valued at about $40 million at his death in 1952, according to the Texas Historical Association. The majority of his estate was left to create a chemical research foundation to benefit mankind. His influence on science and medicine in Houston was profound to say the least. Welch research grants, professorships, lectures and conferences — this is a name that helped build the research arm of the medical center and continues to do so throughout Texas.

Robert Alonzo Welch

Robert Alonzo Welch

Inheriting the family business

Ben Taub, a product of Professor Chris Welch’s academy, benefited from the Welch family sense of community pride and service that his prep school excelled in. After serving as an artillery captain in France during World War I, he returned to Houston to work for his father who owned a chain of stores known as J. N. Taub &  Sons. Ben Taub and his older brother, Sam, would inherit their father’s businesses and acquire large real estate holdings while growing the family-owned holdings.  While Sam Taub was highly respected in financial circles throughout Houston, it was Ben Taub who would model the generosity his parents had taught to help those in need, both young and old. Simply put, Ben Taub walked the walk and created his own legacy of community service.

It is interesting to note that Sam Taub had a good eye for investments and was one of the first to invest in a small, local insurance company run by a father-son duo, John and Gus Wortham. Sam Taub was a trusted advisor and director of a Houston-based insurance company that became an international powerhouse and trendsetter for the insurance industry. That small company started as John L. Wortham & Son in 1915 with an investment of $5,000 and a first commission of $1.88 is today known as American General.

Original Jeff Davison Hospital Rennovated into Elder Lofts

Original Jeff Davis Hospital renovated into Elder Lofts

Ben Taub also built lasting programs that fit his sense of social good including advancing higher education in our community. In 1936, Ben Taub donated 35 acres of land to establish the University of Houston campus. He was also a strong supporter of Baylor College of Medicine’s move from Dallas to Houston in the 1940s and helped bring the city and Harris County together to provide innovative joint funding for indigent patient care. Ben’s concern for improving education and indigent patient care in our community was destined to link him to hospitals and, in time, to our Texas Medical Center. Let’s dig deeper.

The original Jefferson Davis Hospital, commonly referred to as the old Jeff Davis Hospital, opened on Dec. 24, 1924 near downtown at 1101 Elder St. as the first centralized public hospital for indigent patients in Houston. That the hospital was built over an old city cemetery was a problem, especially given that the cemetery held the remains of Confederate soldiers. To help appease the unhappy families of those fallen Southern soldiers, the hospital was named in honor of the Confederacy’s president, Jefferson Davis.

Hospital moves to Allen Parkway

Dr Giuseppe Colasurdo and Lois J. Moore

Dr. Giuseppe N. Colasurdo and Lois J. Moore

In 1939 a newer Jefferson Davis Hospital, commonly called Jeff Davis Hospital, opened on Allen Parkway, and the old facility near downtown fell into decades of disrepair. As the city grew, so did the public hospital. To say it was overcrowded and busy would be an understatement. Ben Taub immersed himself in service to Jeff Davis Hospital and served as chairman of the board nearly three decades from 1935 to 1964. He was a constant presence day and night visiting patients and investing his time and energy advocating services for those in need of care.

We should not overlook the fact that some outstanding health professionals and administrators among us got their start at Jeff Davis Hospital. Dr. Lois J. Moore comes to mind as someone I’ve worked with and admired over the years. She started at the old Jeff Davis Hospital as an emergency room nurse and rose quickly through the ranks to administrator and eventually president and chief executive officer of the Harris County Hospital District established on Jan. 1, 1966. In 2000 The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) recruited Moore as chief administrator for the UTHealth Harris County Psychiatric Hospital, a role she ably held until her retirement in 2013. Today she continues to serve on community boards to make a difference for our city.           

Ben Taub at DePelchin Faith Home in 1937

Ben Taub at DePelchin Faith Home
in 1937

Hospital becomes Ben Taub

In 1963 Jefferson Davis Hospital became Ben Taub General Hospital to honor the native Houstonian who had given so much to his city – the same year our nation lost President Kennedy in a Dallas County hospital named Parkland. Ben Taub would step down from his leadership role on the board in 1964 but for the remaining two decades of his life he continued to support the Texas Medical Center and numerous local charities including United Way and the DePelchin Faith Home for homeless children.

By 1990 the new six-story Ben Taub General Hospital opened in the Texas Medical Center.  While Baylor College of Medicine clinical faculty oversee the care at Ben Taub, let’s not overlook the county’s second full-service hospital, Lyndon B. Johnson General Hospital (LBJ Hospital), that began service on the first Sunday of July 1990 in northeast Houston and is overseen by the clinical faculty of UTHealth.  LBJ Hospital, an outstanding full-service hospital, along with the county’s numerous community clinics deserve further attention in a future ‘Bout Time installment. 

Today we know the hospital named for Ben Taub as one of the finest public hospitals in the country particularly recognized for its trauma care. As for the old Jeff Davis Hospital built way back in 1924 in the shadow of downtown atop a cemetery, don’t write it off as it still proudly stands to this day. Though no longer owned by Harris County, it has been designated a Protected Historic Landmark and represents an important example of civic landmark preservation.

Ben Taub Hospital Emergency Entrance

Ben Taub Hospital Emergency Entrance

In 2004, after years of neglect, the old hospital building was purchased by the Avenue Community Development Corp., and renovated to become the Elder Street Lofts. The three-story, red brick and stone veneer building has a new life as a nonprofit facility providing affordable housing and studio space for artists. It is a real treasure of neoclassical-style Houston architecture with rows of double-hung windows and a central portico adorned by fluted columns.         

As for Ben Taub the man, his service to the community lives on through the hospital bearing his name and Baylor College of Medicine’s Ben Taub Research Center that opened in 1986, four years after his death at 92 in September 1982.

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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