In the early 1940s, Gene Autry visited Tucson and entertained sick children at the Comstock Children’s Hospital. He is shown here with one of the patients.
Comstock has been a part of the Tucson community since 1907, when the city was the destination for tuberculosis patients, commonly called “lungers,” who came seeking a cure in the dry climate.
The tuberculars were an unwelcome presence among the general population of the city and gradually gravitated to a tent city that grew up along Speedway between First Avenue and Campbell.
It was called Tentville by the locals and was a squalid camp with filthy drinking water, inadequate outdoor toilets and the risk of contagion from the hacking coughs of the tuberculars. Healthy Tucsonans shunned it.
In 1908, a printer and Baptist minister named Oliver E. Comstock arrived in Tucson from Georgia with his daughter who was suffering from tuberculosis.
He was an energetic man – small, lean and bald, with white eyebrows and white mutton chop whiskers. He soon became involved in civic affairs, opening the Adams Street Mission at 1034 E. Adams in 1909, while he worked as a typographer and served as a minister, justice of the peace and member of the Tucson City Council. He built a house at 727 N. Second Avenue, only a short bicycle ride from Tentville.
He saw the need for help for the tuberculars, and a year after opening the mission bought more land and set up three tents, which he called the Mercy Emergency Hospital. The crude, outdoor hospital operated in conjunction with the Adams Street Mission and was supported out of Comstock’s own pocket and any money he could wheedle out of his friends.
On Sunday mornings, Reverand Comstock would visit the tent city to minister to the physical and spiritual needs of the poor and sick. He went from tent to tent, taking gifts to the sick and making certain they had food. It would be several years before the Organized Charities of Tucson took an interest in Comstock’s work.
In 1915, Comstock had the good fortune to meet the novelist Harold Bell Wright, himself a victim of tuberculosis, who had sought a cure at Oracle, northeast of Tucson. Wright had helped St. Mary’s Hospital by staging a dramatization of his novel, “The Shepherd of the Hills,” with a cast of locals.
Before long, Wright was a patron of Comstock’s Adams Street Mission. He helped Comstock build a four-room masonry building on Adams Street and staged “Salt of the Earth,” a play with a Tucson setting and recognizable characters, that raised enough money to pay for a wing for Comstock’s hospital.
The Daughters of the American Revolution built and equipped an operating room.
In 1928, Mercy Emergency Hospital was renamed Comstock Hospital. A year later, the Organized Charities assumed responsibility for the operation, and two years later a children’s wing was added.
In 1934, as the Great Depression deepened, the presence in Tucson of crippled and undernourished children convinced the Comstock directors to convert the facility into a children’s hospital. A crippled children’s annex was opened in 1939.
During World War II, Navy cadet officers contributed more than $12,000 to the facility.
From 1951 through 1953, rheumatic fever patients were treated in a separate ward, and as late as 1955 Comstock was home to 16 children infected with tuberculosis. The per diem cost that year at the hospital was $6.60.
The Comstock Children’s Hospital closed in 1965. Assets were assigned to a fund to establish the Comstock Children’s Foundation, which has continued to provide medical and dental treatment for needy children.
As for the Rev. Oliver Comstock, his health declined in the 1930s and he moved to Casa Grande, where he was cared for by his daughter Susie (Mrs. Henry Dobyns). He died on September 10, 1937. By then, the squalid tent city he had served was but a memory.
His work continues today through the efforts of the Comstock Foundation.
Photo and research by Jane Eppinga. ©Arizona Capitol Times.