On Disestablishing Hospitals and Other Living Things

I’m in the National Archives this week, completing my research on the history of the Naval Hospital at Mare Island, California, the Navy’s first on the U S west coast. The work is winding down, as I’ve reached the correspondence between hospital commanders and the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery covering the last two years of the hospital’s existence.

It’s sad reading. The hospital, which peaked out at around 1800 beds during World War II, gradually dwindles, first to 250, then 100, then 50 beds. Even though I know the place closed in 1957, the process is actually quite painful to watch unfold.

Perhaps its painful for me, because I’ve lived through the closure of a hospital I worked at for 15 years of my professional life. Having lived through it, I think these are the reasons why there’s pain in a closure:

First and foremost, I think it’s the human relationships. As we work at an institution, we develop trusting, collaborative relationships with our fellow staffers. We get used to personal quirks, and special talents we can count on and look forward to exploiting (in a positive way!). Seeing those special relationships dissolve was especially difficult for me.

I think an institution takes on a life and a personality of its own through the people who work there, manage the place, and nurture it, really. Even after the people are gone, you can feel something almost spiritual there. I certainly feel this when I walk the hallowed ground on the now-closed and silent hospital on Mare Island. It’s like the soul of the place–or perhaps the souls of the sailors and Marines who were cared for there, and the staff who labored there–are present even to today.

Fortunately, this is where “history” can enter. It’s through the research, study and writing of history that we >can< give "eternal life" to these inanimate objects, to leave for future generations the living story of places and things that once upon a time very much had lives of their own.

A final thought: there is wisdom in sailors' penchant to anthropomorphize the ships they serve in–to imbue them with the soul and personality of living things. They–we all–become attached to the places where we work. To watch them die–to be disestablished or decommissioned–is like watching the final agonies of living creatures. Painful, painful to behold. I'm feeling that pain in the National Archives this week.

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