The Hillman Hospital has been a fixture in Birmingham’s Southside neighborhood since it first opened in 1887, with the goal of serving the poor and indigent without regard to race and gender. Today, it is part of the University Hospital Complex at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).
Hillman Hospital In 1884, a group of women who were the wives of Birmingham business leaders met with the hope of establishing a charity hospital in the new city of Birmingham. They formed the Daughters of United Charity, an organization comprised of members from the city’s Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish congregations that raised funds from public and private sources. Three years later, on March 9, 1887, the Hospital of United Charity was formally incorporated. Birmingham’s first charity hospital opened on October 23, 1888, in space rented in an existing building, with 28 patient beds in wards divided by gender and race.
Thomas T. Hillman For the next decade, the hospital was housed in locations around the city, in leased space and in one specially built, 100-bed facility that burned to the ground in 1894. In March 1896, the facility was renamed Hillman Hospital in honor of local benefactor Thomas Hillman, president of the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company, whose donation of stock and funds, amounting to approximately $20,000, kept the hospital open during the early years. Hillman stipulated that the funds be shared equally among white and black patient wards. The following year, the Alabama legislature granted a charter to the Hillman Hospital, and its management was given to the Board of Lady Managers.
In 1901, the board acquired land on South Twentieth Street for the construction of a modern hospital. A groundbreaking ceremony was held May 2, 1902, with the first shovel of dirt turned by board members Sarah H. Bush, Carrie Lazarus, Kate Duncan Smith, and Lucy L. Stratton. Designed by the firm of Charles and H. B. Wheelock, the four-story brick and stone building was formally dedicated on July 15, 1903.
Original Hillman Hospital Despite the construction of a new building, long-standing financial difficulties continued for the hospital. As a result, the Board of Lady Managers sold the land and the building to the Jefferson County Board of Revenue in May 1907. In 1913, an annex was constructed to relieve overcrowded conditions, but this addition was far from sufficient for the industrial city’s ever-growing population. Another addition, the New Hillman Building, was constructed adjacent to the original facility and opened in January 1928. This expansion again proved to be insufficient for the number of patients seeking treatment, and a five-story building housing the hospital’s outpatient clinics was completed and dedicated on November 19, 1939.
In 1944, a statewide commission, which had been authorized by the state legislature and whose members had been appointed by Gov. Chauncey Sparks, selected Birmingham as the location for the new four-year medical school of the University of Alabama. The legislature also appropriated funds for the establishment and operation of the school.
As a result, Jefferson County deeded Hillman Hospital, the adjacent county-operated Jefferson Hospital (a facility opened in 1941 for patients able to pay for their medical care), and the block of land on which the two facilities stood to the board of trustees of the University of Alabama. The two hospitals were renamed the Jefferson-Hillman Hospital and, in the summer of 1945, became the home of the new Medical College of Alabama. While serving as the home to the medical school, as well as providing space for faculty and staff and for student teaching, the hospital continued to house charity patients, providing essential experiences for the clinical training of medical students. In the decades following its transfer to the university, Hillman Hospital served in many capacities: a hospital for charity patients, a temporary home for a new School of Dentistry, and a location for administrative and staff offices. Despite repeated attempts to demolish it, the century-old hospital remains. It now stands as a historic landmark in the heart of UAB’s twenty-first century hospital.
Bethea, Helen. The Hillman Hospital: A Story of the Growth and Development of the First Hospital in Birmingham, 1888-1907. Birmingham, Ala.: Board of Managers of Hillman Hospital, 1928.
Fisher, Virginia E. Building on a Vision: A Fifty-Year Retrospective of UAB’s Academic Health Center. Birmingham, Ala.: University of Alabama at Birmingham, 1995.
Holley, Howard L., and Eugenia Blount Dabney. “History of the Hillman Hospital, Part I: The Hospital of the United Charities.” De Historia Medicinae 5 (January 1961): 9-16.
Holmes, Jack D. L. A History of the University of Alabama Hospitals. Birmingham, Ala.: University Hospital Auxiliary, 1974.