Looking Back- Dr. E. E. Johnson

Montezuma County Historical Society


     May 2017 - the Centennial Year of the opening of the Johnson Hospital.
E. E. Johnson was born in the south of Sweden in 1882. In 1897 he came with his brother Otto to Minnesota but settled on a farm in South Dakota. He did farm work and went to school. He was interested in medicine and in 14 years learned the English language, finished elementary and high school completed his college and pre-medical work and received his Doctor of Medicine degree in 1912.

     In 1912 Dr. Emil spent three months in Aspen with his widowed mother and two sisters, while filling in for a vacationing Dr. Loff. He learned from a traveling drug salesman that Dr. W. P. Spence in Cortez wished to retire. When he first saw the Montezuma Valley, he said it looked like “the palm of God’s hand.” He bought the medical practice of Dr. Spence and established an office above the post office (the site is located at 34-36 W. Main Street). In 1917 using his old Maxwell car for a down payment Dr. Johnson bought two cottages (the site is now the Turquoise Motor Inn, 535 E. Main) and made them into a 10 bed hospital which had a surgical wing and rooms for patients while the west wing was given over to office, living quarters and kitchen. A passageway was constructed to connect them. It was an attractive property with six acres of grounds under large cottonwood trees. There was an apple orchard, a garden, a big red barn with space for cows and chickens. The hospital was almost completely self-sufficient. There was a laundry building where all linens were done. Produce from the garden and orchard were canned and kept through the winter. Albert Johnson, brother of the Doctor was in charge of these projects, and also filled in as a male nurse and general handyman. The first electric refrigerator in the Cortez area was installed in the hospital and they also used the first electric lights in the area.

     In the fall of 1914 Dr. Johnson was drawn into the Paiute Indian up-rising at Bluff, Utah known as the Polk and Posey incident. John Stavely, a good friend of Doctor’s and noted for his First Aid work offered to accompany him. They drove with horse and buggy all night to reach Bluff. Doctor remained in Bluff several days treating the residents for various ailments. Thereafter the Mormons became his firm friends and in the following years came often to Cortez for medical and hospital care.

     In May 1917, the Johnson Hospital opened. Prior to the opening the ladies in Cortez would host a “surprise hospital shower” to help furnish the hospital and kitchen.
In 1916 or 1917 while treating a burn patient at the Brown Palace Hotel in Cortez he met Miss Jimmie Norman, a young teacher from Hot Springs, Arkansas. She was staying in Cortez and looking for work. He noted her potential for treating patients and offered to help her through nursing school. In June 1920 Jimmie returned from Denver, a certified RN. In November 1921 Dr. Emil and Jimmie (now Virginia) were married in Little Rock, Arkansas.

     The Doctor was especially interested in the health of children, tonsil clinics were held every year. The youngsters were in groups: Monticello, Blanding, Cortez, Mancos and Dolores. A charge of $10 was made for each tonsillectomy. Other hospital charges were appendectomy $125 with hospital and care $25 per week Charges for delivery and a week to nine days in the hospital was $50. Delivery in the patient’s home was $25. Obstetric cases were admitted only when abnormal conditions were suspected.

     In July 1926, The Crown Prince Gustaf VI of Sweden and his wife came to the area to see Mesa Verde. Dr. and Mrs. Johnson with sons, Norman and Eugene, Albert Johnson, and Mr. and Mrs. Axel Johnson with their son Tom, spent time with the royal family visiting Towaoc, Cortez and Mesa Verde. A photo was taken to mark the occasion. Eighty seven years later, Norman E. Johnson, Emil’s grandson, met King Carl XVI Gustaf (the grandson of Gustaf VI) and his wife Queen Silvia in an informal setting in the Washington DC area. The Queen asked for, and received, a copy of the 1926 photo.

     In April 1928, tragedy struck the Johnson family. Their son Norman Theodore died of viral pneumonia, age 4. Some land located on East 2nd Street between Market and Ash was donated for use as a high school athletic field. Emil donated $500 to transform it into a sod field with a cinder track and many other improvements. In honoring his donation, and in sympathy for the family’s recent loss, it was dedicated as the Norman Johnson Memorial Field. In 1930, Blanche Wilbur, a nurse at the hospital, was electrocuted by a fluoroscope in the hospital. Emil and Virginia were devastated.

     April 1940, Emil had a mild stroke and realized he must not only quit medicine, but leave the area because the demands on him would not stop. The family moved to Santa Monica, California and the hospital was closed for about five months. Dr. Frank Girod reopened it. He was called to active military duty during World War II. In 1942 Emil kept the hospital open during the first part of the war with the help of Drs. Speck, Calkins and Lilla.

     At age 61, Emil died of a heart attack in Santa Monica, California. He is buried in the Cortez Cemetery. In 1956-7 the east wing of the Johnson Hospital was moved to the corner of North Harrison and East Arbecam Streets. The front office and living quarters were all that remained of the familiar landmark and were part of the new Turquoise Motel that opened in 1957.
The Johnson Hospital is a tribute to a good man and his life work in our town.

In 1945 the Lions Club took on the project of raising money to build a new hospital. In May 1948, the Southwest Memorial Hospital was opened on South Broadway. The hospital grew and by 1977 it became obvious a new structure was needed.
In 1983 the main conference room at the new Southwest Memorial Hospital on North Mildred Road was dedicated to Dr. Emil Johnson.

Information courtesy of family of Dr. E. E. Johnson. June Head is Historian for the Montezuma County Historical Society. She may be reached for questions, comments or corrections at 970-565-3880.


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07 May 2018

By June Head