A group of Swedish Americans led by Dr. Nils A. Johanson incorporate Seattle's Swedish Hospital on June 13, 1908.

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 10/13/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9611
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On June 13, 1908, a group of Swedish Americans led by Dr. Nils A. Johanson (1872-1946) incorporate Seattle's Swedish Hospital. Dr. Johanson moved to Seattle in 1907 to establish his practice. Seattle has hospitals, but Johanson feels that none of them offer the advances in care that he has seen during his medical training in Denver. In 1908 he joins with 10 other Swedish Americans to form a nonprofit hospital that would incorporate the latest medical advances. The small hospital will continue to expand and will become the largest hospital in Washington state.

From Sweden to Swedish

Nils Johanson immigrated to the United States in 1893 hoping to attend medical school. After a time selling insurance in mines in Illinois, he joined his brother in Colorado and enrolled in the University of Denver. He completed his medical degree in 1903, having learned about the latest advances in germ control and surgical techniques.

Johanson and his wife, Katharine (1876-1944), moved to the Northwest, first to Tacoma then to Seattle, in 1907.  At the time Seattle was served by a handful of hospitals, some, like Providence Hospital, run by religious orders, and others, much smaller, run by doctors. According to his daughter, Katharine Johanson Nordstrom, Dr. Johanson was disappointed by the facilities and the thinking in Seattle's hospitals. The region was still remote and many of the newer medical practices and ideas had not yet been established in the medical community. Johanson decided to establish a hospital that would incorporate the latest medical practices, particularly those related to surgical techniques.

When Johanson arrived in Seattle, he found a well-established Swedish American community.  Nearly 20,000 Swedish Americans lived in Seattle in 1910. He turned to that community to garner support for a new hospital.

On June 13, 1908, a group of 10 area businessmen joined Johanson in signing incorporation papers for Swedish Hospital. The other signers were Andrew Chilberg (1846-1934), Peter A. Hallberg (1867-1922), John A. Soderberg (1866-1935), John Kalberg (1857-1950), Godfrey Chealander (1868-1953), Nels J. Nyquist (1854-1933), Emil Lovegren, Israel Nelson, Gustav Axel Edelsvard, and H. E. Turner.  Dr. Johanson alone brought a medical background to the board. The other board members owned or managed businesses in the Puget Sound area.

The hospital's incorporation papers stipulated that only Swedish Americans could be trustees, a requirement that would remain in place until 1967. The charter also stipulated that the hospital would be operated as a nonprofit entity, with all revenues reinvested in the hospital.

Beginning and Expanding

After two years of fundraising the hospital leased an apartment building on Belmont Avenue on Capitol Hill and converted it into a hospital. The board opened that first hospital on June 1, 1910. The 24-bed facility soon proved to be too small and the board began to look for a new location. A hospital on First Hill, on Summit Avenue, became available when its founder, Dr. Edmund Rininger (1870-1912), died in a car accident. The board purchased the hospital and moved to the new 40-bed hospital in early 1913. Very shortly the hospital began the first of many expansions to its First Hill campus.

Dr. Johanson led the hospital until the mid-1940s. His influence is still felt in the hospital's emphasis on continuing education and at the Swedish Cancer Institute (which he founded as the Swedish Tumor Institute in 1932). The hospital has continued to grow, becoming Washington's largest hospital in 1980. Today (2010), Swedish Medical Center has a large campus on First Hill and clinics, emergency room facilities, and additional hospitals in King and Snohomish counties.


Willard F. Goff, Seattle's Pioneer Hospitals (Seattle, Willard F. Goff, 1970); Katharine Johanson Nordstrom, My Father’s Legacy: The Story of Nils August Johanson, Founder of Swedish Hospital (Mount Vernon, WA: Your Life Unique, 2002); Jennifer Ott interview with Dr. John Wright, August 15, 2010, Woodway, Washington; "Commencement Program," University of Denver Catalogue, 1904-1905 (Denver: University of Denver, 1904), p. 3; "Dedication of Swedish Hospital, March 16, 1913," Seattle -- Hospitals -- Swedish Hospital file, UW Special Collections pamphlet file, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Swedes in Seattle and King County" (by Marianne Forssblad), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed August 31, 2010); "Non-Swedes Elected to Board of Hospital," The Seattle Times, December 18, 1968, p. 56; Saddlebags to Scanners: The First 100 Years of Medicine in Washington State ed. by Nancy M. Rockafeller and James W. Haviland (Seattle: Washington State Medical Association Education and Research Foundation, 1989), 77-78, 84-85; Swedish Hospital Historical Revue, 1908-1922 (Seattle: Swedish Hospital, 1922); "Swedish Hospital to Dedicate New Pavilion," The Seattle Times, June 1, 1980, p. A-19.
Note: This essay was corrected on February 2, 2016.


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