Emil Johnson and the start of hospital care in Cortez

Friday, Dec. 8, 2017 4:54 PM
Crown Prince Gustaf VI of Sweden (tall man on the left), his wife, Lady Louise Mountbatten, and Dr. Emil Johnson (far right). Son Norman, who died at age 4, is the child. Emil’s brother Albert Johnson is behind the prince.
Dr. Emil Johnson
Emil and Virginia Johnson’s wedding portrait, November 1921.
Norman E. Johnson, Dr. Emil Johnson’s grandson, with Queen Silvia and King Carl XVI Gustaf, the grandson of Crown Prince Gustaf VI, who visited Cortez.
The Johnson Hospital opened in May 1917 in two cottages at the site of the current Turquoise Motor Inn, 535 E. Main St. The 10-bed hospital 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.
Axel Johnson, with his young son Tom Johnson, standing between his father, Axel Johnson and mother, Anna Johnson, shakes Crown Prince Gustaf VI’s hand. With back to photo is Dr. Emil Johnson, holding his son Eugene. The young Norman Johnson, who died at age 4, stands among the men.

Emil 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 premedical work and received his doctor of medicine degree in 1912.

That year, Emil Johnson 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 Spence’s medical practice and established an office above the post office (at 34-36 W. Main St.).

In 1917, using his old Maxwell car for a down payment, Johnson bought two cottages (the site is located at the Turquoise Motor Inn, 535 E. Main) and made them into a 10-bed hospital that 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 6 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 nurse and handyman. The first electric refrigerator in the Cortez area was installed in the hospital, and they used the first electric lights in the area.

In fall 1914, Dr. Johnson was drawn into the Paiute Indian uprising at Bluff, Utah, known as the Polk and Posey incident. John Stavely, a good friend of Johnson’s and noted for his first-aid work, offered to accompany him. They drove with horse and buggy all night to reach Bluff.

Johnson remained in Bluff several days to treat the residents for various ailments. Thereafter, the Mormons became his firm friends, and in the following years, they 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 “hospital shower” to help furnish the hospital and the kitchen. Dr. Johnson was usually “surprised” to receive various items for his use at the hospital.

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, Norman returned from Denver, a certified registered nurse. In November 1921, Emil Johnson and Jimmie Norman, (now known as Virginia) were married in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Johnson was especially interested in the health of children, and 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. 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. And appendectomy was $125 with hospital and care for $25 per week.

In July 1926, The Crown Prince Gustaf VI of Sweden and his wife came to the area to see Mesa Verde. Johnson, his wife and sons Norman and Eugene, Albert Johnson, and Mr. and Mrs. Axel Johnson with their son Tom, spent time with the royal family as they visited 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, D.C., area. The queen requested and received a copy of the 1926 photo.

In April 1928, tragedy struck the Johnson family. Their son, Norman Theodore, died of viral pneumonia at age 4. Some land located on East Second Street between Market and Ash streets 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 Johnson were devastated.

In 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. He is buried in the Cortez Cemetery. All of the Johnson family is buried in the Johnson family plot.

In 1983, the main conference room at the new Southwest Memorial Hospital was dedicated to Dr. Emil Johnson. The east wing of the Johnson Hospital was moved to the corner of North Harrison and East Arbecam area when the Turquoise Motel was built.

The Johnson Hospital is a tribute to a good man and his life’s work in our town.

The grandchildren of Dr. Emil E. Johnson furnished information and photographs for this article and for the display at Cortez City Hall in celebration of the Centennial of the Johnson Hospital. June Head, friend of the family, is historian for the Montezuma County Historical Society. She may be reached for questions, comments or corrections at 970-565-3880.