Our History - Southern Arizona VA Health Care System
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Southern Arizona VA Health Care System


Our History

The Southern Arizona VA Health Care System (SAVAHCS), previously known as the Tucson VA Medical Center, began its existence in an abandoned popular recreation spot, located about 13 miles north of town along the road to Oracle Junction.  This recreation spot known as Pastime Park, featured at different times, a skating rink, bowling alley, dance hall, and a notorious roadside tavern.

By late summer 1919, the end of World War I (WWI) brought over three million veterans back into society.  An estimated 50,000 WWI veterans suffered from debilitating respiratory ailments.

By December 1, 1918, nearly 6,000 veterans were being treated for tuberculosis in facilities in Europe and the United States according to information written by Alex Jay Kimmelman dated January 12, 1988, which is also found in the “Journal of Arizona History,” (Vol 31, No. 1, Spring 1990, pp 19-42.)

Although 17 facilities existed in the United States, Public Health Service officials concluded that with a return of over 250,000 veterans who received disabilities as a result of military service during the war, their bed space would be gravely inadequate.  Victims of poison gases did not cause tuberculosis, the damage it caused to the victims lung cells left the patient susceptible to bronchitis, heart disease, and consumption of asthma.  Many veterans traveled around the country looking for the best treatment and climate for their condition.  Between 1919 and 1928, over 3,500 of these veterans were treated at the temporary facility located at Pastime Park.

Through the efforts of men such as Dr. Neill MacArtan, the first director at the temporary facility at Pastime Park and Orville McPherson, a civic booster, attention was brought to the needs of the veterans being treated at the temporary hospital.  Their efforts were joined by business and fraternal associations, church groups and social clubs.  Eventually Tucson was able to provide medical services to the many veterans coming here because of the climate and obtained federal funds to support this cause.  Mr. Kimmelman stated in his history of the temporary veterans hospital that the fiscal efforts of opening a VA hospital should not be underestimated.  The hospital soon became Tucson’s third largest employer.

The majority of the veterans arriving in Tucson were destitute as well as invalid.  For them the tent city, known as Tentville or Bugville, existed about one mile north of the University of Arizona. To escape the terrible conditions found in Tentville, some veterans began squatting at the abandoned Pastime Park.  The unsupervised conditions at Pastime Park began to raise concern among local citizens.

According to Mr. Kimmelman’s history, Mrs. Frances Blair, Executive Secretary for the local Red Cross, informed the Pacific Division of the Red Cross of the terrible dilemma these ill veterans faced.  She received approval from Dr. J. D. Long to search for suitable land.  Her search led her to Pastime Park.

Another individual who greatly influenced the establishment of the temporary veteran’s hospital at Pastime Park was Dr. Neill MacArtan, a native of North Carolina.  He served as medical officer on General Pershing’s staff in 1916 and because he contracted tuberculosis, he was discharged from the army.  During WWI, he reenlisted as a foot soldier.  After recognizing his abilities, he was commissioned as a lieutenant as a medical officer.  In the fall of 1919, he received orders from Washington to proceed west to find a locale where the conditions favored the treatment of tuberculosis.  He left his wife and a young son in North Carolina because he feared they might contract tuberculosis.  His travels eventually brought him to Tucson and Pastime Park.

Dr. MacArtan and Mr. McPherson diligently worked together to find financial support.  In early 1920, the immediate needs were renovating the buildings and obtaining medical equipment.  Finally with the efforts of Congressman Carl T. Hayden, Pastime Park received an initial grant of $25,000 to develop quarters and obtain material.  Equally important, the facility then came under the control of the U.S. Public Health service and became know as Veterans Hospital #51.

The initial hospital began with three existing buildings at Pastime Park.  One brick building housed the boiler and two adobe buildings were used as a ward and a kitchen.  Over the years, the facility grew to a total of 86 buildings.  The staff included Dr. MacArtan, a head nurse, and two ward nurses.  The facility faced great financial and negative publicity challenges.  Then on February 9, 1922, Dr. MacArtan at the age of 40 passed away.  By this time the facility had reached its greatest level of development and remained this way until the new hospital opened.

Through the efforts of community leaders and organizations such as the American Legion Morgan McDermott Post #7 , the Disabled American Veterans, the Chamber of Commerce and businessman Albert Steinfeld’s offer of 116 acres south of town as a donation for a construction site.  Congress approved a formal offer for a new hospital. The groundbreaking took place October 4, 1927.  On August 28, 1928, Veteran’s Hospital #51 opened its doors.

A Brief History of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA)

Today’s Veterans Health Administration (VHA) originated during the Civil War as the first federal hospitals and domiciliaries ever established for the nation’s volunteer military forces.

National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (1865-1930)

Birds-eye-view of the Togus, Maine National Home campus

Eastern Branch National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Togus, Maine, 1891.

On March 3, 1865, a month before the Civil War ended, President Abraham Lincoln authorized the first-ever national soldiers’ and sailors’ asylum to provide medical and convalescent care for discharged members of the Union Army and Navy volunteer forces. The asylum was the first of its kind in the world to provide civilian medical care to Veterans of temporary volunteer forces.

Two earlier soldiers’ homes, operated by the U.S. Army and Navy for Veterans of the Regular military forces, were very small and housed only up to 300 men each. The National Homes housed ten of thousands of Veterans. The National Homes were often called “soldiers’ homes” or “military homes.” Initially only Civil War soldiers and sailors who served honorably with the Union forces—including U.S. Colored Troops—were eligible for admittance. The first National Home, now VA’s oldest hospital, opened near Augusta, Maine, on November 1, 1866. They provided medical care and long-term housing for thousands of Civil War Veterans.

View of the seal for The National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers dated March 3, 1865

Many programs and processes begun at the National Homes continue at VHA today. They were the first to accept women Veterans for medical care and hospitalization beginning in 1923.

By 1929, the National Homes had grown to 11 institutions that spanned the country. All of the original National Homes have operated continuously since they opened.

View of the front facade of the hospital at the National Military Home in Dayton, Ohio

Hospital, Central Branch, National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, Dayton, Ohio, 1912.

Bureau of War Risk Insurance, Public Health Service, & Federal Board of Vocational Education (1917-1922)

For nearly five years three separate federal programs, two of which were under the Treasury Department, provided benefits exclusively to World War I Veterans. In 1921, the Bureau of War Risk Insurance, Public Health Service Veterans’ hospitals, and Rehabilitation Division of the Federal Board of Vocational Education were consolidated to form one agency.

Veterans Bureau (1921-1930)

View of the seal of the Veterans Bureau dated 1921

On August 9, 1921, Congress created the Veterans Bureau by combining three World War I Veterans programs into one bureau. The Veterans Bureau and National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers worked cooperatively to provide medical care to all Veterans at this time.

World War I was the first fully mechanized war and soldiers exposed to mustard gas and other chemicals required specialized care. Tuberculosis and neuro-psychiatric hospitals opened to accommodate Veterans with respiratory or mental health problems.

Native Americans who served in World War I were authorized, for the first time in history, to apply for American citizenship due to a law enacted on November 6, 1919, making them eligible for full Veterans benefits, including health care. The first segregated federal Veterans hospital opened under the Veterans Bureau on February 12, 1923, in Tuskegee, Alabama. In 1924, Veterans’ benefits were liberalized for the second time in history to cover disabilities that were not service-related. In 1928, admission to Veterans Bureau hospitals and National Homes was fully extended to women, National Guard, and militia Veterans.

Veterans Administration (1930-1989)

The second consolidation of federal Veterans programs took place on July 21, 1930 when President Herbert Hoover consolidated the Veterans Bureau with the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers and Pension Bureau and re-designated it as the Veterans Administration.

View of the seal of the Veterans Administration dated 1930

General Frank Hines, Director of the Veterans Bureau since 1923, became the first Administrator of the VA. His tenure lasted 22 years and ended in 1945 when General Omar Bradley took the helm. In 1930, VA consisted of 45 hospitals. By 1945, the number had more than doubled to 97.

World War II ushered in a new era of expanded Veterans’ benefits through the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly referred to as the “G.I. bill", which was signed into law on June 22, 1944. General Omar Bradley took the reins at VA in 1945 and steered its transformation into a modern organization. In 1946, the Department of Medicine and Surgery was established within VA. VA was able to recruit and retain top medical personnel by modifying the Civil Service system. The first women doctors were hired in 1946. When Bradley left in 1947, there were 125 VA hospitals.

Dr. Paul Magnuson, a VA orthopedic surgeon and Chief Medical Director, 1948-1951, led the charge to create an affiliation program with America’s medical schools for medical research and training purposes. By 1948, 60 medical schools were affiliated with VA hospitals. Over the years, these collaborations resulted in groundbreaking advances in medicine, nursing, medical research, and prosthetics.

In the post-World War II period, 90 new and replacement Veterans hospitals were planned, but many were later shelved, when VA’s budget was cut to help fund U.S. Cold War programs. During the 1950s VA’s cooperative research studies led to discoveries about cancer, diabetes, chemotherapy, nuclear medicine, and helped to diminish the spread of tuberculosis.

The first-ever successful human liver transplant operation took place at the Denver VA Medical Center in May 1963 under Dr. Thomas Starzl. In 1977, two VA doctors, Dr. Rosalyn Yalow (Bronx VAMC) and Dr. Andrew Schally (New Orleans VAMC) received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in developing radioimmunoassay of peptide hormones. Dr. Ferid Murad (Palo Alto VAMC) received a Nobel Prize in 1998 for his discoveries concerning nitric oxide as a signaling molecule in the cardiovascular system. Many modern medical advances originated as trials or experiments in VA hospitals and now benefit patients of all types worldwide.

Department of Veterans Affairs (since 1989)

The VA was elevated to a Cabinet-level Executive Department by President Ronald Reagan in October 1988. The change took full effect on March 15, 1989, when the Veterans Administration was renamed as the Department of Veterans Affairs. VA’s first Secretary after the elevation, Ed Derwinski, insisted that the “VA” acronym be retained since it have been a familiar part of American culture for more than 50 years

VA’s Department of Medicine and Surgery was re-designated as the Veterans Health Services and Research Administration, as part of the elevation, and on May 7, 1991, was renamed as the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).

The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is the largest of three administrations that comprise the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. VHA’s primary mission is to provide medical care and services to America’s military Veterans.

Department of Veterans Affairs seal

VHA operates one of the largest health care systems in the world and provides training for a majority of America’s medical, nursing, and allied health professionals. Roughly 60% of all medical residents obtain a portion of their training at VA hospitals and our medical research programs benefit society at-large.

Today’s VHA has roots spanning over 150 years and continues to meet Veterans’ changing medical, surgical, and quality of life needs. New programs provide treatment for traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide prevention, women Veterans, and more.

In recent years VHA has opened more outpatient clinics, established telemedicine, vet centers, and suicide prevention hotlines, and developed other services to accommodate a diverse and ever-changing Veteran population. VHA continually evolves and cultivates on-going cutting-edge medical research and innovation to improve the lives of America’s patriots.