How We Started, 100 Years Ago

The origins of ChildSavers trace back to 1923, when friends of Dr. McGuire Newton, one of Richmond’s first pediatricians, established a foundation to honor his memory. The goal was to create a health-building program that complemented existing efforts rather than competed with them, specifically by providing a free clinic for undernourished and sick children in Richmond.

The McGuire Newton Foundation emerged during a period of intense private social service initiatives across the United States, prompted by the challenges of densely populated urban and industrial areas. Richmond’s population had doubled from 1900 to 1920, driven by its tobacco manufacturing, wholesaling, and service industries. Many donors to the McGuire Newton Foundation were motivated by the dire conditions facing children, including disease and poor living environments.

At the time, significant innovations in psychiatry and pediatrics were underway in the United States to address these emerging challenges. Notably, William Healy in Chicago advocated for Freudian psychoanalysis to tackle child delinquency by addressing root causes such as undernutrition and poor parenting. Healy’s approach integrated medical, psychological, and social methods, forming the basis of the “child guidance” practice.

This interdisciplinary approach was part of a broader movement from the 1890s to the 1920s, which sought to address urban issues through social science. Richmond’s social services also expanded during this era, with the establishment of reform schools and community houses. 

The Child Guidance movement gained traction, attracting support from significant funding agencies like the Commonwealth Fund, established by the Harkness family of Standard Oil fame. In 1921, the Commonwealth Fund began funding several demonstration clinics across the country, including in Richmond. In response to overburdened social services, Virginia’s General Assembly passed the Children’s Code of 1922, aiming to prevent “defectives and delinquents” and address children’s mental and physical needs comprehensively. This led to the establishment of the Children’s Memorial Clinic in Richmond, funded by the Commonwealth Fund and employing Healy’s child guidance methods.

The Children’s Memorial Clinic opened on August 8, 1924, at 1001 East Clay Street. Dr. Basil Jones, the Clinic’s first medical director, anticipated serving various groups, including those referred by the State Board of Public Welfare, the Juvenile Court, public schools, and the City Public Welfare Bureau. The Clinic offered diagnosis and therapeutic guidance for any troubled child who came into contact with an agency. Parents were also encouraged to seek help for their children at the Clinic.

The Clinic’s Board of Managers included representatives from municipal, state, and private institutions, such as the State Public Welfare Commission, the Medical College of Virginia, and the Richmond Public Schools. Mrs. Martha P. Branch, representing the McGuire Newton Foundation, chaired the board. Although initially lacking a psychiatric head, the Clinic was staffed by professional nurses and social workers.

By 1930, the Clinic had expanded its operations, as reported by then-director Harvie De J. Coghill. The Clinic had delivered numerous lectures, opened its doors to outside researchers, and added the Junior League Therapeutic Workshop, which promoted creative activities under systematic guidance. The Clinic had processed 1,115 new cases, serving a diverse clientele, including African American children and public school attendees.

When the Commonwealth Fund funding ended in 1926, the Clinic sought additional revenue sources. It secured annual appropriations from the City of Richmond, the State Board of Public Welfare, and the Richmond Public Schools, among others.
A crucial partnership was formed with the Junior League, which funded a workshop offering art and woodworking classes. In 1934, the Junior League opened a playground next to the Clinic to promote healthy play, although activities were racially segregated.

The Clinic staff, including doctors, nurses, and social workers, engaged in public outreach, speaking at parent conferences, school groups, and social service organizations to share the latest scientific understanding of child health and emotional development. This outreach helped disseminate up-to-date medical and psychological practices and attracted potential donors and supporters.

The Great Depression brought additional challenges, as economic collapse led to increased unemployment and more children facing hunger and unstable family situations. The Clinic noted an increase in cases related to unemployment’s impact on children and family dynamics. However, the Clinic’s longstanding understanding of the relationship between unstable domestic environments and child problems positioned it well to address these new challenges.
In collaboration with academic institutions, the Clinic opened its doors to social work students, who produced numerous studies on topics such as adolescent psychology and the impact of unemployment on childhood development.

Operating in a segregated society, the Clinic adhered to the prevailing norms of the time. While the Clinic provided equal medical care to Black and white children, activities were segregated, and reports differentiated the number of Black and white clients served.

Overall, the Children’s Memorial Clinic grew from a small initiative honoring Dr. McGuire Newton into a significant institution addressing the complex needs of children in Richmond through medical, psychological, and social services, while navigating the societal challenges of its time.

This article is the first part of a summery of the history of our organization researched and written by independent historian, Christopher Graham of Richmond, Virginia. A full copy of our history with citations is available here.

A Timeline Over 100 Years

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