Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center has been a big name in the Central Texas healthcare network for almost a century. Though the institution’s name has changed several times over the decades, the mission remains the same: to serve the sick people of Waco and surrounding areas in a welcoming, Christian environment.
The idea for a Baptist hospital in Waco began with Arthur James Barton, pastor of First Baptist Church of Waco, as early as 1909. But this would be no small undertaking, and it would cost a great deal of money for the local congregation. The idea circulated the community for a few years, and in 1912 the Waco Baptist Association (WBA) formed the Sanitarium Standing Committee, set to raise an estimated $50,000 for the construction of a sanitarium—the predecessor to the modern-day hospital with more restricted facilities. The only other hospital in the area was the Catholic-run Providence Hospital. Financial Secretary of the Committee Ben T. Goodwin set out on a widespread fundraising campaign. Despite initial success, such as the $10,000 pledged by the Young Men’s Business League, by September 1914 Goodwin paused all fundraising efforts because of the outbreak of World War I.
The next phase of the project was taken up by Joseph M. Dawson who assumed the pastorship of First Baptist in 1915. Dawson strongly believed that taking care of the sick was an instrumental part of the Christian faith, and he often preached such messages to his congregation in support of the sanitarium. He set out himself in 1916 to acquire land for the proposed sanitarium, buying two plots for $7,000. This important step instilled confidence in the WBA, and following the land acquisitions the WBA leaders chartered the sanitarium the same year. The charter included a nursing school and specified that the sanitarium would be open to all medical school graduates and doctors “of good repute.” Further, it articulated the institution’s purpose as “a responsibility to the community [that] would transcend political strife, regional strife, religious distinctions, and racial distinctions.”
Waco local Jesse Judge Dean donated more land to the project, and by 1917 the WBA had raised $60,000. While the whole project would cost around $275,000, the WBA went ahead and hired architect George C. Burnett and contractor James S. Harrison and Son. They broke ground at the original location on Herring Avenue on July 10, 1917. By October 1918 the exterior was complete, but more funds were needed to furnish the inside. Local women’s groups such as the WBA Women’s Auxiliary donated their time and completed the landscaping, and they also donated materials such as bed linens. The hospital and nursing building were both completed in 1920.
To everyone’s surprise, the first patient preceded the hospital’s opening on May 25, 1920. Dr. H. Frank Connally performed an emergency appendectomy on Mrs. Mable Battle Westbrook at 4:30 a.m. on May 25. The first registered surgical patient, a Mrs. Mamie Lou Lange Hatch, then received her operation at 8:00 a.m. The Central Texas Baptist Sanitarium was officially up and running.
The sanitarium saw massive expansions and improvements in the following decades of the twentieth century. By 1938 the name had changed to Hillcrest Memorial Hospital. The change was meant to honor the citizens of the surrounding Hillcrest area who had worked to hard to fund raise and make the hospital a reality. In the same year, the hospital also obtained its first iron lung to treat polio. Though the hospital almost closed during the Depression, a little over a decade later it was back on its feet ready to expand. In 1953 a new wing was opened and the bed capacity raised to 175. By 1963 the hospital underwent another name change. When it was brought under the Baptist General Convention of Texas the name was changed to Hillcrest Baptist Hospital. That same decade saw the closing of the nursing school, and the hospital began to hire nurses trained at the new McLennan Community College.
The two decades from 1978 to 1998 saw the greatest changes. In 1978 the Clara and Harlon Fentress Cancer Treatment Center was built, with forty-inch walls to contain the radiation. The 1980s brought the construction of an outpatient surgical center, the Magnolia Tree Inn for patients’ families, the primary care clinic and MRI center, and labor and delivery rooms. The name of the hospital was also changed one last time in 1982 to Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center, to reflect the hospital’s “comprehensive approach to health education and preventative medicine.” The 1990s continued to witness immense growth, with the opening of the Heart Center, the NICU, school clinics, and the hospital’s upgrade to a Level II trauma center.
The hospital did finally run into some trouble after the turn of the century. Tensions between the doctors serving at the hospital and the administration ran high, and many doctors considered leaving Hillcrest altogether. But a change in management came in 2007 with CEO Glenn Robinson, and doctor-hospital relationships improved. It was also Robinson who oversaw the biggest change in Hillcrest history—much more than a change in name, a change in location. In 2009, every patient was transferred to the new location on I-35 and Highway 6 in just one day. Hillcrest still operates today at this location in partnership with Baylor Scott & White Health network. Primarily vacant for over ten years, several attempts to find a new owner for the old Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center Complex proved unsuccessful. In 2020, a final plan to convert the old hospital into a state-run mental healthcare facility fell through under the financial stress of Hurricane Harvey and the COVID-19 pandemic. While Hillcrest Hospital continues to serve the region in its new location, the former home of Hillcrest will be demolished and the space opened up for revitalization and new development.