Katherine Berry Richardson (1858 – 1933)
Katherine Berry Richardson was a doctor and surgeon who dedicated her life to relieving the suffering of poor children. She and her sister, Alice Berry Graham, a dentist, established a free hospital for children in Kansas City called Children’s Mercy Hospital.
Katherine Berry was born on September 28, 1858, in Kentucky. She was the younger of two girls born to Stephen Paine and Harriett Benson Berry. Katherine’s mother died in 1861 when Katherine was only three. Her father, a farmer and grain-mill operator, raised her and her sister in Pennsylvania. He held strong beliefs that he passed on to his daughters. Katherine quoted her father as saying, “The responsibility of an American extends beyond his own family.” He also told his daughters, “Wherever you go, it is your duty to make good citizens of your neighbors.” He sent both daughters to high school and raised them to be independent women with a deep concern for others.
Katherine was an excellent student. She attended college and then medical school. After Alice finished dental school, they started a medical practice together in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Katherine married James Ira Richardson in 1893 and moved to Kansas City in 1897. Alice, a widow by that time, joined them. The sisters began a medical practice in Kansas City and lived above their office. In 1903, Katherine’s husband died.
Answering a Call for Help
In general, women doctors were not accepted in the late 1800s. Although Katherine was a surgeon, she had no place to operate because hospitals in Kansas City did not allow women on their surgical staffs. Katherine met this prejudice face on.
On the night of June 1, 1897, she received a phone call about a five-year-old crippled girl who had suffered an accident and was not being cared for properly. Katherine went out in the middle of the night to find the girl. Because the child had never received medical treatment, she was crippled. Katherine brought the girl to a maternity hospital and rented her a bed for five dollars a week. Katherine did surgery on the girl’s injured hip and nursed her back to heath. Later, she found the child a home.
Pediatric Care for All
This was the beginning of Mercy Hospital. Katherine and Alice brought a number of patients to this facility. When the hospital could not pay its rent, the sisters took over the lease. They named their hospital the Free Bed Fund Association for Crippled, Deformed, and Ruptured Children. They moved the hospital to different locations as better facilities became available. In 1904, they changed the name to Children’s Mercy Hospital.
Katherine and Alice operated their hospital on very little money. They could take care of and feed a child for only ninety cents a day. They raised money by talking to church groups and women’s clubs. In those days, black and white people went to separate hospitals. Katherine did not want to turn away black children who needed medical attention. She established a Mercy Hospital ward at Wheatley Hospital to serve black children.
Maintaining High Medical Standards
In 1913, Alice died. The sisters had been planning to build a bigger hospital because they had so many patients. Katherine went ahead with their plans and in 1916 dedicated the new building to Alice, without taking any credit herself. The cornerstone read: “In 1897, Dr. Alice Berry Graham founded this hospital for sick and crippled children—to be forever nonsectarian, nonlocal, and for those who cannot pay.”
The hospital that Katherine directed from that time onward was run in a kind but firm manner. Katherine set high standards for her doctors and nurses. She believed in sun and fresh air as aids to healing. She also believed in “curative play,” the idea that playing helps the healing process. She provided patients with a playroom, schoolroom, gymnasium, and playground. Her hospital also had a small laboratory to study children’s diseases.
Katherine Berry Richardson was a pioneer in the field of pediatric medicine. She believed in women’s rights and helped women gain the right to vote. Through her intelligence, hard work, and dedication, she established and ran a children’s hospital that met the medical needs of many poor children. Katherine continued to practice medicine and perform surgery until a few days before her death on June 3, 1933. She is buried beside her sister in Mount Washington Cemetery in Kansas City.
Research and Text by Carlynn Trout
Christensen, Lawrence O. et al, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 648–49.
Dains, Mary K. and Sue Sadler, eds. Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies, 2 vols. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989, 1993. Vol. 1: 207–08.
McCandless, Perry and William E. Foley. Missouri Then and Now. 3rd ed. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2001. p. 270.