Woman’s Hospital Celebrates 50th Birthday

1968. It was the year humans first traveled to the moon, the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War gripped our nation, The Beatles’ “Blackbird” took flight, and Samantha “bewitched” the airwaves. It was also the year Woman’s Hospital opened in Baton Rouge.

More than a decade prior, the baby boom was in full swing. Though nearly 400 babies were being born each month at two area hospitals, several OB-GYNs recognized that women could be better served at a dedicated birth facility. Woman’s Hospital’s 21 founders began working in 1956 to plan, finance, and build a hospital exclusively for women. On Nov. 18, 1968, Woman’s Hospital opened as one of the first women’s specialty hospitals in the nation. This new hospital was thoughtfully named “Woman’s” to convey the physicians’ commitment to treating each woman’s individual and unique healthcare needs over the span of her lifetime.

While many locals think of Woman’s as a place to have a baby, it’s a little-known fact that Woman’s roots are actually in cancer detection. Developed in the 1940s by Dr. George Papanicolaou, the Pap smear is a simple, effective way to screen for cervical cancer. Though the medical community was still skeptical of the test by the 1950s, one of Woman’s founders, Dr. Cary Daugherty, traveled to Paris to train under Papanicolaou, himself. Daugherty began to use Pap smears to diagnose many early cancers in his cancer detection laboratory. He donated the proceeds from the laboratory to Woman’s, thus providing one of the sources of funds to build the hospital. The Cary Dougherty Cancer Detection Laboratory, still in operation today, is one of the most respected in the nation, having processed nearly two million Pap tests since its inception. It is credited with helping Baton Rouge having one of the lowest death rates due to cervical cancer in the country.

Birth services have changed dramatically since Woman’s first opened. In the 1960s, having a baby was a heavily medicated, isolated experience for mothers. Following birth, babies were whisked away to a nursery. Fathers were not allowed to be present during births until 1978. Now, Woman’s emphasizes a family-centered experience, particularly keeping mothers and babies together to promote immediate bonding and successful breastfeeding.

Care for critically ill babies has also transformed over the past 50 years. In the early 1970s, Woman’s had only three incubators to control oxygen, temperature, and humidity. Today, Woman’s NICU features the most advanced technology and is the largest in the state at 84 beds.

More than 40,000 women receive their mammogram at Woman’s each year. But in the early 1970s, Woman’s was performing about two mammograms per day, as they were only offered for women who had a lump or other symptom of breast cancer. That changed in 1973 when a clinical trial demonstrated a significant reduction in breast cancer deaths among women who received mammograms. Mammography as a screening tool began to grow, as did awareness of breast cancer as a major public health problem. Woman’s opened its dedicated Breast Center in 1985 and performed 3,000 mammograms in its first year, emerging as an advocate for early detection and breast cancer awareness. The Breast and GYN Cancer Pavilion opened in 2018 in partnership with Mary Bird Perkins-Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center to offer the most advanced breast and gynecologic cancer care for women in the region.  

As Woman’s services grew, Woman’s campus grew as well. By the end of 2004, every square inch of Woman’s original campus had been expanded, rebuilt, or remodeled at least once, and renovating the landlocked facility was no longer feasible. In 2008, Woman’s broke ground on a new campus to allow for future growth, and on Aug. 5, 2012, the new campus opened.

“Since its opening in 1968, Woman’s has soared – expanding core services, adding new services and constantly striving for excellence as evidenced by its many national, state, and local awards for quality and patient experience,” said Teri Fontenot, Woman’s president and CEO. “I would like to thank our community for 50 extraordinary years and for its continuing support.”

In honor of Woman’s 50th birthday, an historical wall was installed along the hospital’s main corridor. It features artifacts such as Pap smear slides from the late 1950s and a hardhat from the groundbreaking at the original campus. It also features a ticker that counts the number of babies born at Woman’s each day. Every baby born at Woman’s in November will receive a copy of “The Very Best Birth Day,” a children’s book written by Woman’s employee Elizabeth Howard Kline. Books are available for purchase in Woman’s gift shop for $19.95, and proceeds will be reinvested into the Foundation for Woman’s. Books will be available in all libraries in East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, West Feliciana, Livingston, and Ascension Parishes.