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Napa State Hospital opened its doors in 1875. From that date forward, the institution was a frequent local newspaper topic. During the early 1900s, the Napa Daily Journal printed Napa State Hospital news regarding staffing issues, legal difficulties for both the doctors and staff, potential epidemics and more.

In 1902, the male attendants of the facility gathered to listen to an Attendants’ Union representative regarding forming a local chapter. According to the Journal, that meeting was supposed to be somewhat secretive “but the facts were known to so many people that it soon became noised about the town.”

At that meeting the local attendants enthusiastically responded to the union representative and especially to the organization’s mission of providing a unified and larger voice to address grievances. One unnamed local attendant said, “There are some rules that are very onerous, unreasonable and humiliating.” He added, “We have no intention of striking, or being militant. We just want to be heard.”

A year later, an Attendants’ Union chapter had been organized by the Hospital’s employees. The 1903 Journal article also indicated there was strife between the management and union members due to a female attendant having been fired for a minor infraction. The union challenged that action, but to no avail because the management refused to hear their case.

A decade later, there continued to be labor issues as illustrated by a 1913 Journal headline. “Axe Falls At Asylum.” The newspaper reported five to six long-time employees were asked to resign for unknown reasons. It noted those workers all planned to comply by resigning versus being fired. The Journal also stated that current round of job cuts was not the first, or last, call for the long-term employees’ resignations.

While there were issues between the Hospital’s administration and workers, there were also problems with the physicians. In fact, one particular doctor received a substantial amount of unflattering media attention. A late 1920 Journal article reported Dr. Cohn was facing a lot of legal problems due to his failure to pay his bills. A San Francisco mercantile, “Raphael Weill & Co., has brought suit against Dr. Cohn in hopes of recovering his unpaid tab. (Napa County) Justice Palmer issued an order for examination directed against Dr. Cohn of the Napa State Hospital, directing him to come into Court and explain what he does with his money.”

Apparently, Cohn had a long list of creditors. But when they attempted to collect some sort of payment, they were, “unable to find any real or personal property belonging to Dr. Cohn,” said the Journal.

It continued, “Dr. Cohn draws a salary of $150 per month as assistant physician at the Napa State Hospital. In addition he and his family are furnished quarters, a servant, food, light, laundry, in fact, everything but clothing, by the State.” It added, “Raphael Weill & Co. would like Dr. Cohn to explain why it is that he is unable to pay their bill of $87.02 on such an income.”

As Cohn faced Justice Palmer to answer that question, and the court’s order to pay off his debt, Cohn soon faced another crisis. A 1903 Journal headline announced, “Smallpox At The Asylum.” The article began, “A case of smallpox is reported at the State Hospital. It has been isolated and quarantined, and every necessary precaution taken to prevent the spread of the disease to the other inmates or to the general public.”

According to the Journal, a young woman from Fairfield, via Vallejo, was committed to Napa State Hospital. As customary, she was stripped down and bathed by female attendants. One of the woman noticed the patient’s body was covered with red bumps. As required by the institution’s rules, the attendant reported her discovery to the physician-on-duty, Dr. Cohn. He judge the bumps to be just a benign rash.

Shortly thereafter and quite by accident, another physician, Dr. Pulsifer, saw the undressed young woman and immediately diagnosed the bumps as being smallpox. Three other doctors confirmed Pulsifer’s diagnosis. The young woman was quickly placed in isolation with two nurses to care for her while a quarantine for the institution was declared.

The Journal added, “It is said that Dr. Cohn will have to answer before the powers that be for his failure to make a proper investigation and diagnosis. If it is found that Dr. Cohn had been careless in this instance, in which the health of so many patients and attendants is involved, he may receive his official quietus.”

Based on a preliminary search, Cohn managed to preserve his job but was demoted to a post with constant supervision.

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Email Rebecca Yerger at yegerenterprises@yahoo.com.

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