History of Austin

Unwrap the legendary history of Austin's first hospital and past pandemics

Unwrap legendary history of Austin's first hospital and past pandemics

City Hospital original Brackenridge Hospital
City Hospital opened in 1872 on Sabine Street. Austin History Center
Block 164 red river innovation district new building
The Medical District will include a 17-story marquee building housing Dell Medical School and healthcare providers. Rendering courtesy of Gensler
City Hospital original Brackenridge Hospital
Block 164 red river innovation district new building

In the early days of Austin, when land was being parceled by surveyor Edwin Waller for public use, a tract near the corner of East 15th Street and I-35 was designated for a public hospital. The 14.2-acre spot was chosen, according to historical documents, "so that the prevailing wind from the south would blow away any bad airs or humors of illness away from town and to the north and east."

City Hospital opened in 1872 on Sabine Street between 14th and 15th Streets. (It was originally called City-County Hospital until the county withdrew from the partnership.) In 1915, a larger, more modern 45-bed hospital was built nearby, along with a nursing school that turned the hospital into a teaching facility.

It was established to care for all, regardless of the ability to pay, although the hospital was urged to limit infectious patient admissions to avoid the reputation as a "pest house." It was a time when many areas of medicine were still unknown or in the experimental stage and sanitation continued to be a problem worldwide.

The birth of Brackenridge Hospital after Physician & Benefactor
As Austin grew, so did the need for more hospital beds. As a leading doctor at the hospital and community leader, Dr. Robert John Brackenridge was instrumental in building a new hospital on the premises.

After Dr. Brackenridge became the chairman of the hospital board, the hospital was named in his honor in 1929. (Fun fact: His brother George Washington Brackenridge lived in San Antonio and donated the land which eventually became that city's beloved Brackenridge Park.)

Dr. Brackenridge died in 1918 and is buried in East Austin's Oakwood Cemetery.

Brackenridge Hospital expands and adds specializations
In order to remain a viable public hospital, Brackenridge became a fully accredited teaching hospital in the 1950s, added an ICU in 1960, and continued to add specializations to benefit all Central Texans.

A pathology department was added when Dr. Atys Da Silva and his family were recruited from Indiana. (Dr. Da Silva originally studied medicine in his native Brazil before moving his family to Indiana where he specialized in pathology.) He worked at Brackenridge from 1960 to 1985, and enlisted a number of interns who went on to successful practices both in the community and around the world.

A Trauma Level 1 Emergency department was added in 2007, expanding emergency services to the area, with STARflight (Shock, Trauma, and Air Rescue) helipad and helicopter providing emergency help to 19 counties. The hospital was named an official Trauma Level I Center in 2009.

Brackenridge Hospital in times of national and international crises
In its 133 years of serving the Travis County community, regardless of ability to pay, the hospital treated patients during a number of local, national, and international events including the Spanish Flu.

When the Spanish Flu struck in 1918, an estimated 20 to 50 million people died across the globe, out of an estimated 500 millions people infected with the virus. Locally, hundreds of Austinites died of the Spanish Flu.

This new influenza strain was deadly, contagious, and struck at a time when the United States was involved in World War I. Many servicemen were stricken by the virus, and locally additional medical facilities were constructed around the city to help ease the burden. On October 7, 1918, Austin was shutdown for almost a month. The critical cases of the flu were sent to the Seton infirmary on 26th Street or to Brackenridge Hospital.

Eventually the 1918 flu pandemic subsided (there are numerous theories as to why) and local leaders declared Austin residents had boldly faced the challenge.

After treating patients of the 1918 flu, other national epidemics affecting patients and healthcare practitioners came to Brack, included a diphtheria epidemic from 1921-1955; a polio epidemic from 1916 until 1955, when Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine; and the HIV and AIDS crisis, which appeared in the 1980s. 

Austin also faced a tragedy of seismic proportions when Charles Whitman started a shooting spree on August 1, 1966, from the University of Texas Tower. Doctors rushed to the scene including the Brack staff who was prepared for a citywide crisis after completing a mock plane crash just weeks before the tower shooting.

The end of an era and ushering in the Medical District
On May 21, 2017, Brackenridge Hospital officially closed, and a ceremony was held to mark the end of an important era for both the hospital and the city. Over 100 remaining patients were moved across 15th Street to Dell Seton Medical Center, along with more than 1,500 hospital employees.

Austin's plan to become a healthcare innovation city began with a legislative roadmap "10 Goals in 10 Years," prepared by State Senator Kirk Watson, who also served as Austin's mayor from 1997-2001. Among the plan's goals was the development of a medical school, which was achieved in 2004 in a landmark agreement between UT and Seton (now under the umbrella of Ascension Health). In 2013, Dell Medical School officially opened and its first class was scheduled to graduate this May before the COVID-19 pandemic closed UT. 

Today, Brackenridge remains standing, though unused, on UT's Innovation District, which will eventually feature a 17-story building (to be completed in 2022) that will house Dell Medical School and other healthcare organizations. Plans for the Innovation District also include apartments, retail, and office space adjacent to the revitalized Waller Park.