(1882-1957) American Physician
Emma Rochelle Wheeler founded and ran the first African-American hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She not only practiced medicine and surgery at the facility, but she also administered its school of nursing. She later established an innovative system of prepaying for hospitalization and in-home nursing services, an initiative that reduced the financial strain on families at the time of unexpected sickness.
Wheeler was born on February 8, 1882, in Gainesville, Florida. Her father was a farmer and veterinarian. Her interest in medicine peaked when, suffering from an eye problem at the age of six, she visited a white woman diagnostician, who befriended Wheeler and encouraged her to pursue the study of medicine. She thus attended Cookman Institute in Jacksonville, graduating at the age of 17 in 1899.
In 1900, Wheeler married Joseph R. Howard, a teacher who died a year later of typhoid fever while she was pregnant with a son, whom she named after his dead father. She moved them to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend Meharry Medical, Dental, and Pharmaceutical College of Walden University, graduating with a medical degree in 1905. During commencement week, she married a fellow doctor, John N. Wheeler, and eventually the couple had two daughters, Thelma and Bette, and they adopted Wheeler’s nephew, George.
The Wheelers moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where they established a joint practice. After a decade of saving money and planning, Wheeler founded the Walden Hospital, a facility dedicated to serving the African-American community’s medical needs (which went largely unmet by the existing medical establishment). On July 30, 1915, she opened the three-story building she had commissioned, complete with 30 beds, nine private rooms, and a 12-bed medical dispensary ward. Two staff doctors and three nurses worked the hospital’s surgical, maternity, and nursery departments, and 17 physicians and surgeons with the Mountain City Medical Society (to which Wheeler herself belonged) admitted patients there. Although Wheeler’s husband practiced at the hospital, Wheeler herself managed, operated, and funded the hospital.
After the hospital’s first decade, Wheeler established the Nurse Service Club of Chattanooga in 1925. This radically new concept, an initiative independent from the hospital, provided its members with two weeks of prepaid hospitalization and subsequent in-home nurse care afterward. Also in 1925, she collaborated with Emma Henry, Zenobia House, and Marjorie Parker to establish the Pi Omega chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. By this time, Wheeler had given up on performing surgery at the hospital in order to devote herself to her administrative responsibilities, including the hospital’s school of nursing, which she maintained for over two decades.
In 1949, the Chattanooga branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People granted Wheeler its Negro Mother of the Year award. Two years later, failing health forced her to retire from administering the hospital, which foundered without her leadership and closed on June 30, 1953. Wheeler continued her private medical practice, but at the age of 75, she entered Hub-bard Hospital in Nashville. She died there on September 12, 1957.
Five years after Wheeler’s death, the Chattanooga Housing Authority named its new housing project the Emma Wheeler homes in her memory. On February 16, 1990, the Tennessee Historical Commission officially recognized the historical significance of Walden Hospital by placing a historical marker at its former site.