Her mission of mercy began with a single bed.
In June 1897 surgeon Katharine Berry Richardson and her sister, dentist Alice Berry Graham, rented a hospital bed for a 6-year-old girl named Stella. They had found her abandoned on the Kansas City streets.
“A little child, alone, sick, frightened...,” recalled Richardson many years later. “Who needs help more, or deserves it as much” as youngsters in desperate need of treatment?
From that first act of charity rose the Berry sisters’ Free Bed Fund Association to provide a mattress and medicine for “sick, crippled, deformed and ruptured children” who haven’t the financial means of receiving care.
In 1904 a working hospital with five beds opened on Highland Avenue.
So began Children’s Mercy Hospital, called just Mercy Hospital at the time but dedicated to treating youngsters. It’s now a billion-dollar-a-year enterprise of 350-plus licensed beds, 1,000 volunteers, and medical staff exceeding 700.
Spreading from Hospital Hill across several specialty clinics and urgent care locations, Children’s Mercy is among the region’s most generously supported institutions.
Its beginnings, however, were met with grumbling skepticism.
In her Mercy’s Messenger mailings Richardson asked: Why shouldn’t children be entitled to free hospitals? “See if your argument (also) applies to free schools and free churches — it takes all three to make a citizen.”
The public back then looked warily on assuming responsibility for poor and neglected children. Many just looked away.
“We had children being brought in from all over,” who required costly attention and could spread disease, said Thomas M. McCormally, the hospital’s current director of archives. “People were asking, ‘Why are they taking care of sick kids from North Dakota?’ ”
Consider also that the Berry siblings had moved here from a Wisconsin medical practice to launch careers dominated by men. No hospital in the city allowed women physicians on staff.
They had helped each other become trained. The older Alice taught school so her younger sister could afford a degree from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.
Katharine returned the favor by teaching for a year to allow Alice to graduate from dental school.
Both married but lost husbands before reaching middle age.
Of the two sisters, “Dr. Kate” was regarded as the more brash and blunt-spoken, never shy about lecturing the Kansas City establishment and hitting up its deepest pockets. In doing so she insisted that the needs of kids didn’t end with their physical well-being:
“Our children are not cases to be numbered and catalogued. They are human beings, and as long as I live, they shall be treated as such.”
Financial support had to come from somewhere, given the hospital’s extraordinary goal.
If families had the means to pay for treatment, they couldn’t even come to Mercy. McCormally said that rule continued into the early 1950s.
After Alice died of cancer in 1913, Richardson dedicated 20 years to expanding facilities and reaching out to treat African-American children at all-black Wheatly-Provident Hospital.
She didn’t integrate Mercy; to do so at the time would’ve riled donors. But by traveling to both sides of the state line, Richardson applied her substantial surgical skills to correct cleft palates and other facial deformities in kids of all colors, wherever they were admitted.
“She was quite gifted as a facial surgeon,” said Jane Knapp, chairwoman of graduate medical education at Children’s Mercy.
“When you look at the pictures of her patients, before and after, many of the results are very remarkable. And you need to consider the instruments used then were not the same as today...She had to use wires and saws, all kinds of things.”
Richardson built furniture, too.
Carpentry shops took up space in her home and at the new Mercy that opened 1916 at Independence and Woodland avenues.
Richardson and a helper made all the furniture for the nurses’ residency hall. (At least two of Richardson’s benches still grace the Hospital Hill facility, which opened 1970.)
She never really stopped working.
“Don’t ever tell anyone your age,” she once said. “They’ll want to retire you.”
On the week she died in 1933, the 70-something physician performed plastic surgery on a youngster with a cleft palate. She was well into planning another fundraiser for a research lab.
The previous year Mercy had treated more than 22,000 children with Richardson seldom off the property.
“None was able to pay for medical care. None paid,” The Kansas City Star reported at the time of her death.
At the top of that edition’s front page, a headline: “Dr. Richardson Followed in His Steps.” The story was proof that early doubts of the Berry sisters’ mission were long dissolved.
It compared Richardson to Jesus putting healing hands on children.
Today the sisters Berry lie side-by-side at Mount Washington Cemetery.