Inside JCPRD: Johnson County’s first community clinics

The Olathe Community Hospital as it appeared in 1970, following the construction of a new facility two years earlier. Courtesy Olathe Public Library.

By The Johnson County Museum

(Part 2 of 3)

Johnson County is fortunate today to be home to many outstanding hospitals, clinics, doctor’s practices, and other medical facilities. But this was not always the case. In thinking about how much health has been in the news with the COVID-19 pandemic, this three-part blog series will explore the history of healthcare in Johnson County. Note: healthcare refers to a system of doctors, clinics, and hospitals, while health care refers to the treatments of those providers and the things people do to address their health.

Johnson County’s healthcare history changed drastically after World War II. A few dozen medical doctors making house calls were enough to take care of the county’s population when it was mainly rural, but this level of care was grossly inadequate as the county’s population rose sharply after 1940 with postwar suburbanization. There grew a real need for a more robust system of healthcare, and a change in how that health care was delivered. Johnson County’s healthcare had to transform from house calls to health clinics.

The first hospital in Johnson County opened in 1934 in Gardner. At the time a rural agricultural community with less than 500 residents, Gardner also served as an economic and societal hub for the southwestern portion of the county. Residents from Gardner and surrounding areas who needed advanced medical attention had to drive almost an hour up Highway 56 (Interstate 35 today) to St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City.

Dr. Reece with Reece Hospital’s first birth, Opal Sawyer, born in 1941. To read more about Dr. Reece and his efforts to bring health care to southern Johnson County, see the museum’s former newsletter, The ALBUM. Johnson County Museum.

Dr. Adelbert S. Reece, who had been practicing medicine in Gardner since July 1930, opened Johnson County’s first hospital, Reece Hospital, in 1934. Although Reece Hospital was located in downtown Gardner, the building – a former barn – was originally located in Olathe. Dr. Reece purchased the barn, then had it dismantled and rebuilt in downtown Gardner. When the hospital opened, it had just three beds. By 1948, Reece Hospital had 24 beds.

Dr. Reece did not stop with Reece Hospital. In 1961, he helped create the Gardner Community Medical Center to serve the larger geographic area. Later, the group established the Meadowbrook Rehabilitation Hospital, which specializes in head injuries. This site serves as a legacy of Dr. Reece’s hope for modern medical facilities in the Gardner community.

Johnson County citizens were also the driving force behind the creation of other county hospitals. Sometime around 1950, enterprising residents joined forces to form the Olathe Hospital Foundation, Inc. The group collected enough donations to fund the building of the Olathe Community Hospital, which was completed in 1953. The hospital served a significant need in the community, caring for 1,511 residents in 1955 alone. Hospital staff delivered 411 babies in 1956. As the community grew, a larger facility was needed. In 1968, Olathe Medical Center opened with 36 physicians, a 24-hour emergency room, new surgery, lab, and pharmacy facilities, 12 intensive care beds, three pharmacists, and full-time radiologists and anesthesiologists. Olathe Medical Center continues to operate today at its location on West 151st Street.

Johnson Countians living in the northeastern portion of the county were also in need of healthcare facilities during the 1950s. Seventh Day Adventists had planned to open a geriatric clinic in the area, but when the J.C. Nichols Company donated land near 75th Street and I-35, the group instead worked with community leaders to open the Shawnee Mission Health Center. The modern facility opened in 1961 with 102 beds. The next year, the first hospital located in Johnson County’s suburbanized neighborhoods, Shawnee Mission Hospital, opened with two operating rooms.

In 1971, Shawnee Mission Hospital expanded to become Shawnee Mission Medical Center. The center included 187 beds. Shawnee Mission Medical Center expanded again in 2007 with the development of the Shawnee Mission Outpatient Pavilion in Lenexa, as well as a second Shawnee Mission Urgent Care location. The next year, plans for a Critical Care Services expansion were announced. Today Shawnee Mission Medical Center is part of the AdventHealth system.

Reece Hospital, Olathe Community Hospital, and Shawnee Mission Hospital provided much needed access to healthcare in the years immediately prior to and after World War II. As Johnson County’s population continued to grow due to suburban construction, each of these community hospitals expanded as well. Even with the growth of these medical facilities and the eventual development of full-scale medical campuses, Johnson County simply needed more hospitals. This need ushered in a new era of healthcare, which will be the topic of our final blog in this healthcare series: the era of the hospital system.