By Bryant Boutwell and Charles M. Balch
The Sept. 23, 1942, Houston meeting of The University of Texas System Board of Regents ended at 5:30 p.m., just in time for a tour of the Oaks with the new cancer hospital’s acting director, Dr. Ernst Bertner. Bertner outlined his plans for remodeling the buildings and expanding the grounds as the Regents followed close behind, taking in the impressive but aging facilities. Additional buildings for patient care and research would be needed, and with sweeping gestures Bertner painted a picture of a campus of buildings that would one day stretch across the grounds before them. The 6-acre estate included a large, three-story red-brick home that appeared brown under a thick layer of English ivy that crept into the windows and gave Capt. James A. Baker’s former home the aged colonial patina one might expect of a great civic leader. A brick walkway led Bertner’s entourage to a two-story stables and carriage house that included house staff quarters he eyed as future research space. There also was a greenhouse that Bertner had plans for.
Over the next decade, from 1942 to 1952, more than a dozen buildings would be added on these grounds including clinics and research and educational facilities incorporating a modest library of medical books, as well as a Postgraduate School of Medicine (predecessor to The MD Anderson Cancer Center UT Health Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences).
To appreciate the Oaks is to step back in time and know the story behind the story that led to the Regents’ first tour of the property. On Sept. 23, 1900, a wealthy Houstonian named William Marsh Rice was murdered in his New York apartment. It was a murder mystery of first order left to Rice’s personal attorney in Houston. Captain Baker heard the news in Houston and was alarmed that Rice’s will was to be probated in New York. He knew nothing about this unknown will, given he held the original. Baker hurried by train to solve the crime and save Rice’s fortune and dream to create a university we know today as Rice University. Captain Baker was a legendary Houston attorney whose father, Judge Baker, moved from Huntsville to Houston to team up with Peter Gray and Walter Botts in 1874 to create the law firm we know today as Baker Botts. Captain Baker’s grandson, born in 1930, is James A. Baker, III, who served as chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan and secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush.
It is Captain Baker’s 6-acre residence at 2310 Baldwin on the corner of Baldwin and Hadley Streets in Houston’s Midtown where our focus lies. Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, in their book on the life of James A. Baker, III, summarize the grounds of the Oaks as “filled with tall oak trees and a rose garden that Alice Graham Baker (the Captain’s beloved wife) tended with the help of a half-dozen gardeners.”
Designed by the Houston architectural firm of Sanguinet and Staats, the Oaks had an impressive foyer, marble fireplaces, a billiards room, a set of stables for the horses and an extensive household staff. Sunday dinner was a special time at the Oaks. Captain Baker loved surrounding himself with his large clan, and everyone was expected. The Baker/Glasser book adds: “In later years, the grandchildren [including the future secretary of state] were convinced ghosts lived there, a fear the old Captain would do little to allay when he promised them a nickel if they ran around the room in the dark.”
Upon Captain Baker’s death, the Oaks was given to Rice University to be used as the university president’s home. Captain Baker had died shortly before the UT System Board of Regents accepted the M.D. Anderson Foundation trustees’ offer to provide a temporary and permanent home for the new cancer hospital in Houston. Rice University considered the home too far from campus for presidential use, so one of the foundation’s trustees, Col. William Bates, inquired. For $60,000, the Oaks changed hands from Rice to UT. The new cancer hospital now had a temporary home, and Dr. Ernst Bertner, as acting director, had the task of converting the former residence into a cancer care facility.
Touring the house with Bertner that September day in 1942, the UT System Board of Regents first inspected the first floor with large reception room, library, music room, banquet room, warming kitchen, breakfast room, main kitchen, pastry kitchen and galleries. The second floor comprised bedrooms, sleeping porches and baths. The bedrooms would become administrative offices, and they were small. Frances Goff, who would arrive in 1951, recalled her office was so small she had to set a chair outside in the hall to conduct meetings. Down in the basement, the Regents inspected the heating plant, wine cellar, laundry and game rooms, taking note that the attic was floored for storage.
The 6-acre grounds provided ample space to construct new buildings. The expansive rose garden, which Alice Baker carefully tended over the years, is echoed in today’s Tom Jean Moore Rose Garden at MD Anderson. The continuity of roses at MD Anderson, past and present, provides a meaningful thread of spirituality between the Oaks and the comprehensive cancer center we know today.
Despite the beauty of Alice’s rose gardens on the day of the UT Regents’ first tour of the grounds, not all was rosy. The nation was at war, and construction materials and permits were scarce to nonexistent for new construction. Bertner had to conjure up creative ways to “remodel” the existing structures, avoiding words like “new construction.” Until funds and permits for new construction on the grounds could be acquired, the main residence was converted first to accommodate administrative offices and house equipment for radiotherapy and radiological diagnosis. The carriage house was to be converted to research laboratories, and the curved brick wall between the carriage house and greenhouse would serve as one wall of an animal care facility, allowing it to be a “remodeling project” rather than new construction.
With applications filed with the War Production Board, Bertner’s initial remodeling budget was about $18,000. Given he had no faculty, he turned to UTMB, and by Christmas 1942, he had borrowed five staff members including biochemists Dr. Ernest Campaigne, J.K. Cline and Fritz Schlenk; microbiologist C.P. Coogle; and business manager John Musgrove. Musgrove’s ability to manage the dollars and swing a hammer when a helping hand was needed would prove essential in the years ahead serving both Bertner and Dr. R. Lee Clark. Musgrove’s willingness to go above and beyond during these unusual times serves as a testament to the teamwork and family feel of the early MD Anderson.
March 1, 1944, was a monumental day as the first patient, a 57-year-old man with lymphoma, received treatment at the Oaks. Until this time, patients were seen in a small cancer detection clinic on the grounds. Patients needing treatment were sent to Hermann Hospital, where 20 beds were negotiated by UT in exchange for intern and resident housing provided at Hermann by the UT System Board of Regents. Beds also were negotiated at the Houston Negro Hospital (later named Riverside General Hospital), given the Jim Crow laws of the day. Bertner wisely focused on nonpaying patients to avoid any misconception that the new cancer hospital was a threat to the income of private practice physicians throughout the city. He was a master at working with the medical community to ease concerns and garner referrals. He possessed political savvy and administered it with care.
By March 1944, MD Anderson’s new 16-bed outpatient clinic on the grounds was in operation. It was a small building but an important start, along with a small reception center for incoming patients and an animal house. All were one-story and frame-constructed. These small additions to the original estate were the beginning of a maze of dovetailed structures, 13 stand-alone buildings in all, that Bertner and Clark would erect between 1942 and the early 1950s while the hospital’s permanent home emerged from the forest behind Hermann Hospital for patient transfer in March 1954.
On Feb. 16, 1944, four months before D-Day, Bertner stood at the podium on a bright sunny Houston morning to dedicate the formal opening of the new M.D. Anderson Hospital for Cancer Research on the grounds of the Oaks. Those participating that day included UT System Chancellor Dr. Homer P. Rainey, Dr. John Spies and Arthur Cato (authors of House Bill 268), as well as members of Monroe Anderson’s family, trustees of the M.D. Anderson Foundation, UT System Board of Regents and guests.
“The beginnings of the work which we see here today are due almost entirely to Dr. Bertner’s leadership,” Rainey noted.
Guest speaker Frank Adair, chief of surgery at Memorial Hospital in New York, predicted that the world would be watching “this experiment in combining private philanthropy and state funds under the aegis of The University of Texas.”
On that day, Ernst Bertner had no way of knowing that cancer itself would take his life in six years. What he would do with that time is impressive as he simultaneously laid the groundwork for the new cancer hospital and guided the trustees of Monroe Anderson’s foundation in conceptualizing and building a medical center in Houston unlike any in the world. While the Oaks was a temporary facility, it hummed with activity, serving some 13,000 patients during its 10 years of operation, from February 1944 to February1954.
Bertner loved the challenge and the satisfaction of birthing a hospital but never intended to make the job his career. Already he had reminded the UT System Board of Regents that they needed to find a permanent director. He understood better than most others that the success of the cancer hospital would define his vision for the success of the larger medical center. He also understood that the cancer hospital’s permanent director would make or break progress made to date at the Oaks and would be crucial to the success of both the cancer hospital and the medical city Bertner hoped to build. He urged the regents to find a respected physician with leadership skills and a can-do vision to seize the opportunity to build something great.
In 1942, Lee Clark, a talented surgeon in Jackson, Mississippi, with a focus on cancer cases, was 36 when he came across the Journal of the American Medical Association announcement of the new Texas cancer hospital and the appointment of Ernst Bertner as acting director. He confessed to his wife, Bert, he was envious.
“Now that’s something I really would like to do,” Clark said. “It’s too bad they’ve already appointed a director.”
Little did he know that the very job he found of interest would soon come his way.
Next article: The education of Lee Clark Jr.