Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 38 Issue 16 • August 14-20, 2008
now in our 38th season

Nantucket’s First Hospital

by Frances Karttunen

At the north end of North Water Street one comes face to face with a prominent house known as Captain’s Corners. Standing at the confluence of North Water Street, Easton Street, Chester Street, and Cliff Road, it was built at the very end of the 1800s.  Striking in its height, roofline, bays, and great variety of windows, it is a far cry from the sober Francis Joy homestead it replaced.

The Joy house, a “typical Nantucket house,” had been the home of generations of Nantucket merchants.  Probably dating from the latter half of the 1700s, it was built around a massive central chimney and had four bays, a wart on one side, a kitchen ell to the rear, and a roof scuttle, but no roof walk. In all its details, it resembled the neighboring houses of the same vintage at that end of North Water Street.

The firm of Francis Joy and Sons dealt in whale oil, candles, wood, groceries, and “sundries.”  With partners Reuben Giles and Walter Folger, Francis Joy Sr. owned the sloop Betsey, and among the business correspondence preserved at the Nantucket Historical Association Research Library are bills for waterfront services, dockage, unloading, and the like.

With the decline of the whaling industry, the family business ceased to be profitable, and the Joys joined the exodus to the mainland.  Their old house was sold to a newcomer to the island, Dr. John Shackford Grouard, who had it pulled down in 1897 to make room for construction of his then thoroughly modern new residence.

J. S. Grouard, son of a physician, was born in Alleghany, Pennsylvania in 1867. From public school he went on to Phillips Exeter Academy and then Harvard University, completing his studies at Harvard Medical School in 1889.  After two years at work in Boston hospitals, he moved to Nantucket to establish his own general medicine and surgical practice, which he carried on for thirty-six years.

In 1891, the island economy was still struggling to recover from the demise of its maritime industry and to replace it with summer tourism.   Visitors came seeking a respite from mainland cities that in summer heat became supremely uncomfortable and even more unhealthy than usual.  But services on this unspoiled island were in many ways rudimentary.  In particular, there was no hospital.  For better or worse, patients were cared for in their homes.  This was not perceived as a burden by Nantucketers, but it was a great problem for summer visitors who, in increasing numbers, were spending weeks or even months on Nantucket.  If a summer visitor fell ill or suffered a serious injury, the options were to remain in often Spartan summer hotel rooms or cottages until recovered or to make long, uncomfortable trips back home by steamboat and train.

For the first twenty-two years of his practice, Dr. Grouard saw and treated patients at his own home, which had been built for the purpose.  If one imagines Captain’s Corners with reception area, waiting room, and examination room on the first floor, the architectural protuberances and the multitude of various shaped windows flooding the rooms with natural sunlight makes perfect sense.

Dr. Grouard took the Nantucket community to heart and worked tirelessly for the benefit of the townsfolk.  In addition to taking on the responsibility of being the official Town Physician and medical examiner, he served many terms on the Nantucket School Board, was president of the Nantucket Civic League and the Citizen’s Gas, Electric, and Power Company, and was instrumental in founding the Nantucket Athletic Club for the island’s young men and women.  He joined Nantucket’s Union Lodge and the Isle of the Sea Royal Arch Chapter, rising through their degrees.

Perhaps the most lasting contribution of all was his role with Dr. Benjamin Sharp as co-founders of the Nantucket Cottage Hospital on West Chester Street in 1913.  Originally intended only as a summer facility, it almost immediately began to serve the year-round population and was providentially in place in time for the deadly 1918 influenza epidemic. The global pandemic surely would have claimed many more lives on Nantucket than it did had there not been a modern, well-staffed hospital to care for the sickest of the victims.  Of 337 confirmed cases on-island in the fall of 1918, there were just nine deaths.

While it was undoubtedly a boon to Dr. Grouard to have a sterile operating room and the assistance of trained nurses at the nearby hospital, it must have been at least as great a relief to his wife and their adopted son to have the patients out of their front rooms.

Dr. Grouard practiced medicine on Nantucket through the spring of 1927 and might have been looking forward to retirement when he was stricken with a gall bladder inflammation.  Calling upon Dr. Jacob Fine, a Harvard-trained surgeon, to fill in for him temporarily, Dr. Grouard went to Boston for surgery.  Despite an optimistic prognosis, he survived the operation by less than a week.

Nantucketers were shocked and grief stricken.  Although Dr. Grouard’s funeral and interment were off-island, Nantucket businesses closed for an hour while the members of Union Lodge assembled to honor him.

Dr. Fine stayed on to manage Dr. Grouard’s practice for the next three years and thereafter continued practicing on-island in the summers until 1941 from an office on Broad Street.

Captain’s Corners became a guesthouse.  The same lay-out that had made it attractive and comfortable for Dr. Grouard’s patients provided a gracious reception area and common room for visitors to the island.  It has now enjoyed a run of over eighty years in that capacity. Although it replaced an old Nantucket house whose demolition must in retrospect seem regrettable, it has now achieved historic significance itself—significance both architectural and societal, having been an incubator of modern medicine on Nantucket.

Frances Karttunen’s books, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars and Law and Disorder in Old Nantucket are available at Nantucket bookstores.

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