William Beaumont Army Medical Center History

Photo of William Beaumont Army Medical Center

History shows William Beaumont Army Medical Center as having its beginnings in the 1850s. Soldiers were assigned to the various camps to defend the settlers and the U.S. border. Doctors and medics were assigned for medical support of the soldiers.

Primarily, soldiers suffered from ailments traced to the unpurified Rio Grande water. After several earlier moves, Fort Bliss moved to its permanent location at Lanoria Mesa in 1893. Building 8 (now the Fort Bliss Inspector General's Office) became the hospital. In 1916, the hospital moved to Building 1 (presently the Fort Bliss Directorate of Resource Management).

The hospital is named for a man not from the El Paso Southwest. Army Capt. (Dr.) William Beaumont joined the 6th Infantry as an assistant surgeon. He saw action during the War of 1812 at Fort Mackinac in Michigan Territory. There he did research on the human digestive system. The patient was Alexis St. Martin.

In 1822, a brawny 18-year-old French Canadian fur trapper named Alexis St. Martin was shot at close range with a musket. The shot destroyed part of his stomach and part of his internal organs. Beaumont arrived within minutes, dressed the wounds, and awaited the outcome. St. Martin lived, but the wound healed leaving a permanent opening.

Because St. Martin's wound never closed, Beaumont was afforded the opportunity to observe the intricate and mysterious stomach processes and to take body temperatures. In the 1830s, with the support of The Surgeon General of the Army, Beaumont went to the East coast with St. Martin where additional experiments were performed. His notes and observations revolutionized medical understanding of how the digestive system functioned. Beaumont identified hydrochloric acid as the principal agent in gastric juice and recognized its digestive and bacteriostatic functions. In 1833, Beaumont published Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion. The book was based upon his research on St. Martin and the work on which his reputation lies. Throughout his 25-year Army career he received numerous honors. Beaumont died in 1853.

On June 20, 1920, construction began on 272 acres of rocky, cactus-covered land Northwest of Fort Bliss proper to build a new hospital to be named William Beaumont General Hospital in honor of Dr. Beaumont. Fred Wilson Road and Dyer, Piedras, and Hayes streets border the area. The hospital made of tile and stucco opened July 2, 1921, with a bed capacity for 403 patients. On staff were six medical officers, two nurses and 30 medical corpsmen.

Before construction, the area was infested with rattlesnakes. Today, the hospital grounds have grass, flowers, shrubs, and trees with a quiet and relaxed atmosphere.

During World War II, the hospital grew to 174 buildings and a crowded 4,064 beds. This included the 1,000 beds at Building 1 and another 750 beds at Biggs Air Force Base, now Biggs Army Air Field. In December 1943, the plastic surgery clinic was opened.

The first chief of plastic surgery was Lt. Col. (Dr.) Willard W. Schussler, who would become the foremost plastic surgeon in El Paso. He was appointed Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army in 1980. This honorary two-star general equivalent is rarely afforded to physicians. He followed William I. Latham, a retired editor of the El Paso Times.

During early 1945, approximately 6,000 inpatients were treated. In addition, a military school for medical technicians offered specialized training in surgical, dental, laboratory, X-ray, pharmacy and veterinary procedures. The hospital had a fully equipped physical therapy and occupational therapy center. Also, the artificial eye clinic was opened. Later, the hospital expanded into a neuro-psychiatric treatment and orthopedic surgery center.

Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Charles G. Pixley, the hospital commander from September 1975 through December1976, was promoted to lieutenant general in 1977 and became The Surgeon General of the Army.

As Fort Bliss continued to grow during the next two decades, William Beaumont outgrew its facilities. The alternative was a new hospital -- built alongside and to the west of the old facilities. It was dedicated on July 2, 1972. In 1973, the hospital became William Beaumont Army Medical Center, subordinate to the Army Health Services Command.

The hospital is constructed such that 12 stories reach above the desert floor; an eight-level tower protrudes from a four-story base. The building's fa├žade of cream-colored brick and sandblasted natural concrete blends with the Franklin Mountains located behind the hospital The base covers an area greater than two acres; the 12 levels contain more than a half-million square feet of floor space.

Although designed for 611 beds, by the early 1980s the hospital had a capacity of 463. The Omar N. Bradley building, an addition to the west-side of the main hospital, was opened in 1982. This facility provides an additional 200,000 square feet of clinical and administrative space. Today, the hospital has a bed capacity for more than 150 patients. However, during contingencies, the hospital can expand for 373 patients.

November 1995, WBAMC became one of the largest buildings in El Paso with another 254,000 square feet of floor space for the Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care Center. Now, the WBAMC complex has more than one million square feet of floor space for patient care and administrative duties.

In fiscal year 2014, an average of more than 3,200 patients were seen daily. The medical center performed on average of 23 inpatient admissions, 135 emergency department visits, 29 inpatient surgeries and fills over 4,058 pharmacy requests daily. WBAMC is a Level 3 trauma center.

The Tertiary Health Care, Research, Graduate Medical Education Programs and affiliations with institutions such as Texas Tech University School of Medicine, University of Texas at El Paso School of Nursing, and El Paso Community College Nursing School provide the cornerstones for the medical center. Furthermore, WBAMC offers a broad range of programs in many medical disciplines. Presently, there are 70 physicians in training, 27 interns and 43 residents. There are also more than 100 officers and enlisted Soldiers training in other medical specialties on any given day. There are also opportunities for medical students throughout the nation to do rotations here at William Beaumont Army Medical Center.