Kansas City, MO

Women's History Month: the founders of Children's Mercy Hospital were sisters

CJ Coombs

Children's Mercy Hospital, downtown Kansas City, Missouri.Photo byNightryder84, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Children's Mercy Hospital's story begins with two sisters

Katharine Berry and her sister, Alice, arrived in Kansas City from Wisconsin in 1893. They took turns putting each other through school. The first sister to obtain her medical degree was Katharine while Alice worked as a schoolteacher. Alice later obtained her dental degree. Remember their professions were male-dominated early on. Also, their gender prevented them from being a part of groups associated with medical professionals.

Eventually, both sisters were widowed, which afforded them control over their own money as well as the paths that laid out their passions and visions. With determination and the influence of their father to do what's right began the story of their legacy and place in history.

Children’s Mercy Hospital

The founding of the hospital began in 1897 when an abandoned malnourished girl in Kansas City, Missouri was discovered by Dr. Katharine Berry Richardson and Dr. Alice Berry Graham. They both treated the girl in a rented bed at a maternity hospital. The practice of treating patients in a small hospital by renting bed space was a result of women physicians being unable to become hospital staff members.

After the maternity hospital closed, the sisters leased it and that was where they established their first hospital. The rented bed earned the name of the Mercy Bed as much-needed healthcare for children grew.

In 1901, the sister doctors having established the Free Bed Fund Association for Crippled Deformed and Ruptured Children, included the Mercy name, and in 1919, changed the name to Children’s Mercy Hospital.

At a time when many felt a woman’s place was in the home and certainly not on a path to becoming a doctor, the sister doctors were initially scoffed at. The sisters wanted their staffers to be women which wasn't different from other facilities that were male-dominated. However, as the hospital continued to achieve success and positive outcomes, the ridicule of the sisters lessened.

In 1903, the sisters were in a building with five beds at 414 Highland Avenue in Kansas City. They along with staff members pleaded for financial support, volunteers, and supplies. Dr. Richardson kept a sign by the street informing people of the hospital's needs and some of it was basic such as bedding and canned food.

The construction of a new hospital began at 1710 Independence Avenue, which opened in 1917. This hospital prospered until it relocated to Kansas City's Hospital Hill in 1970.

Hospital Hill is a neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri. The neighborhood is located between 22nd Street to 25th Street and Gillham Road to Troost Avenue. This name reflects the geography and a history of public hospitals on the same site since 1870. (Source.)
Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas is the largest pediatric hospital in the state.Photo byNightryder84, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

In October 1997, Children's Mercy has a location open in Overland Park, Kansas, with an expansion occurring in 2004.

In August 2005, Children’s Mercy Hospital was one of the hospitals to help evacuate pediatric patients out of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck.

In 2012, Children's Mercy opened a facility in Independence, Missouri. The Children's Mercy Research Institute opened in a nine-story building in 2015. The hospital celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2022.

Dr. Katharine Berry Richardson

Dr. Richardson had a driven mission. She was motivated to give time and help to children in need. It’s been said that even though she and her husband couldn’t have children, she actually had many if you count the heads she cared for.

Dr. Richardson was the second daughter of Stephen P. Berry and Harriett Benson Berry. She was born around 1860 and her mother died the following year. Her sister, Alice, being eight years older would help care for Katharine.

Their father taught by influence and encouraged his daughters to cling to principles. Both sisters completed high school which wasn’t all too common in their place in history. When Alice was done, she became a teacher and used her salary to help send Katharine to Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, and then to Pennsylvania Women’s College in Philadelphia, the latter of which was where Katharine received her medical degree.

Then, it was Katharine’s turn to help Alice complete her studies at Philadelphia Dental College. They practiced for a while in Wisconsin and in 1890, moved to Kansas City where there were hardly any female doctors. It was challenging for the sisters to find patients.

Katharine's husband, James Ira Richardson, having died on January 15, 1908, at age 56-57, didn't live to see the construction of the hospital. Also, her sister, Alice, who lost her life to cancer on May 13, 1913, didn't see the beginning of the hospital construction either. After Alice died, Katharine was determined to continue their vision.

As a surgeon, Katharine was the most skilled in the region for facial reconstruction for those children who were born with a cleft lip and palate. She pushed for understanding the emotional needs of patients who were children.

Children's Mercy Hospital (Adele Hall Campus), Kansas City, Missouri.Photo byShawnCMH, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Children's Mercy Hospital continued to expand. There was even a small research facility studying children's diseases. Today, Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics still carry on the visions of both doctors at their third location as of 1970, at 2401 Gillham Road, Kansas City, Missouri, which was across the street from where I used to work. That location has been thriving and helping since 1970. In 1977, my son was there for a week after he was born. That location as well as the one in Kansas has treated family members. 

While both Katharine and Alice founded the hospital together in 1897, Katharine credited her sister, Dr. Alice Berry Graham, as being the founder of Children’s Mercy Hospital. From 1897 to 1911, Dr. Graham was the administrator and person in charge of fundraising. Dr. Richardson was the medical director from 1897 to 1933 as well as the hospital administrator from 1911 to 1933. Interestingly, up until the week when Dr. Richardson died on June 3, 1933, at age 72, she was still running the hospital and performing surgeries.

The legacy of the achievements of Dr. Katharine B. Richardson and Dr. Alice B. Graham lives on in Kansas City.

Thank you for reading.

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Multi-genre writer and indie author with a BA in Eng Journalism & Creative Writing. My working career has been in law firms. Thinker, giver, and lover of life and retired early to be a writer. Born into Air Force service life, life has taken me to Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Missouri. I love family, art, reading, history, true crime, travel, and research.

Kansas City, MO

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