By Thomas A. Bergbauer, Retired Courier-Post Editor
Dr. Richard M. Cooper always dreamed of a hospital for Camden, but he never lived to see his dream come true.
Cooper and his twin brother, William D., were born on August 30, 1816. Fraternal twins, they did not look alike. They were direct descendants of William and Margaret Cooper, who first settled in Camden in 1681.
According to Cooper Hospital archives, the brothers attended the University of Pennsylvania, Richard studying medicine and William, law. The 23-year-olds graduated in 1839. Richard lived with his twin brother and two sisters, Elizabeth and Sarah in the home their father built at 121 Cooper St. The four never married. There were three other sisters, Caroline, Abigail and Mary and another brother, Alexander.
During the 1800s, Camden was never free from contagious diseases, according to hospital records. The city suffered cholera epidemics in 1832, 1849 and 1854. There were outbreaks of smallpox in 1871 and again in 1880 and 1881, which were followed by an epidemic of typhus fever. With no hospitals to care for the sick, doctors had to treat their patients at home. Camden was in critical need of some kind of organized medical center and Richard always saw a need for a hospital and in the 1870s revealed his plans for an institution.
Unfortunately death came before the hospital. Richard Cooper died on May 24, 1874 at the age of 57. He left no bequest for a hospital. However, his survivors were determined to keep his dream alive and William appealed to the state legislature requesting an act of incorporation be approved to establish The Camden Hospital.
But on February 17, 1875, William died at the age of 58 and despite the deaths of Richard and William the remaining family members worked to keep the plans for the hospital alive.
On April 7, 1875 an act of incorporation for the hospital was adopted. The group elected Alexander Cooper, brother of Richard and William, president and John W. Wright, a nephew, secretary-treasurer. The family donated five acres for the hospital which was bounded by Mickle, Benson, 6th and 7th streets that also included Steven Street, which ran through the property.
On March 16, 1877 the state approved a name change to Cooper Hospital and on Nov. 5, 1877 construction was completed. But the hospital did not open. Records show the board declared there was not enough funds to begin operations. Finally, 10 years later with $185,000, the doors opened on August 8, 1887.
While Cooper was the first hospital to be built in the city it was not the first to open. The Camden Homeopathic Hospital and Dispensary Association opened on March 2, 1885 at 4th and Arch streets, which later changed its name to West Jersey Homeopathic Dispensary and Hospital Association—today's Virtua Health System. West Jersey's present facility at Mount Ephraim and Atlantic avenues was constructed in 1912.
Thomas A. Bergbauer is a retired Courier-Post copy editor and freelance writer.