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Mercy History

For more than 100 years Mercy Medical Center – Des Moines has been an outstanding presence in the health care community of Iowa. The hospital has been recognized for its many firsts: the first permanent hospital in Des Moines; the first isotope laboratory in Polk County; the first heart transplant performed in Central Iowa, and the first hospital in the WORLD to have a bi-lateral cardiac catheterization laboratory.

In 1893 Des Moines’ population of 52,000 was growing quickly. On Dec. 8 of that year Mercy Hospital opened its doors at Hoyt Sherman Place on Woodland Avenue. The hospital had two private rooms and a ward for five patients. Patients were charged between $2.50 and $6 per day with an additional fee of two dollars to five dollars for surgery.

From this modest start by six nuns, Mercy has evolved into a $900 million, 802-bed medical center, located on two campuses with more than 7,000 employees. Mercy was started by the Sisters of Mercy, an order founded by Catherine McAuley in Dublin, Ireland, in 1831. Sixteen years later the Sisters established the first hospital in the United States and, by the 1890s, had founded more than 30 hospitals in this country, including Mercy Hospital in Des Moines.

Mercy’s roots trace back to a pioneer priest, the Reverend John Brazill, who came to Des Moines in 1860. He recognized the need for a hospital and, in 1876, appointed the first hospital board of trustees. Upon his death he left a trust to establish a Catholic hospital. His successor, monsignor Michael Flavin of St. Ambrose Church, asked the Most Reverend Henry Cosgrove, bishop of Davenport, to send some Sisters of Mercy to establish a hospital.

As a result, the six nuns came from Mercy-Davenport and began operations at Hoyt Sherman Place. A total of 221 patients were served that first year. Planning and construction of the permanent hospital on “Sun Kissed Hill” north of downtown began immediately.

In 1895, the hospital dedicated its first permanent building at Fourth and Ascension streets on the site of the present Central Campus. The East Wing, as it was known, was four stories, cost $50,000, and had room for 12 patients. It included a convent, chapel and nurses’ quarters.

In 1897, the Central Wing was built, and two other additions were built in 1908 and 1912. During the early 1900s the hospital operated a clinic for Drake Medical School students, opened the Mercy School of Nursing, and began a training program for interns and residents. In 1901, the first Mercy Des Moines School of Nursing class graduated. Eight nurses graduated that year and looked forward to earning up to $50 per week, but were expected to put in 10 hours or more per day to receive that wage.


By the 1930s Mercy could boast of its pathological laboratory; its X-ray, pediatrics, and orthopedic departments; and its electro-cardiograph machine, and by the 1940s the hospital had roughly 220 beds.

The hospital did not escape the turmoil wrought by World War II. At one point 29 Mercy doctors and 51 School of Nursing alumnae were in the service. Shortages of supplies were a constant worry. Nurses recall having to save on gauze by tearing it into smaller pieces and recycling it by resterilizing when possible. Mercy and two other Des Moines hospitals offered a training program for the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps, which offered incentives to women entering the nursing profession.

But the war also brought enormous medical progress. Doctors returned from the war with new procedures for treating serious injuries and burns, plus a greater knowledge of plastic surgery. Penicillin, the “wonder drug,” was introduced, followed quickly by cortisone and important tranquilizers.


In 1951, Mercy treated 11,179 patients, and 1,853 babies were born in its maternity ward. The overall occupancy rate of the hospital was 95 percent. In 1955 the Sisters of Mercy announced plans for a South Wing to add 108 beds. This prompted the first major fundraising campaign in Mercy’s history. The wing was completed in 1959, after $2.4 million had been raised. The hospital now had 361 beds.

If the 1950s were characterized by steady growth, the 1960s and 1970s were marked by a multimillion-dollar expansion to keep up with the demand for more sophisticated medical services. Buildings added to the Mercy campus during this period included a convent, chapel, intern apartments, and a 10-story, H-shaped tower that brought the total number of beds to 500.  This created the first hospital in Iowa – 40 years ago – with all private rooms.

Other additions to the campus included three medical office buildings, a cancer center, an activity center for senior citizens, and parking ramps to handle more than 1,200 vehicles.


To meet the needs of the Des Moines community, Mercy Clinics, Inc. was developed in 1983. It opened its first Mercy Medical Clinic at Valley West Mall in 1983, and since has opened 23 other clinics in the Des Moines area.

In 1987 Mercy developed the House of Mercy, located on Clark Street. By practicing the same caring and compassionate principals of serving God that Sister Catherine McAuley shared, this nurturing establishment provides a home for women and children facing the most challenging circumstances in life, such as domestic violence, homelessness, substance abuse and teenage pregnancy. A number of programs are available to provide the unmet needs of this population. The House of Mercy has grown to become Iowa’s largest provider of transitional housing for women undergoing treatment for substance abuse.

Mercy’s emergency department treats more than 80,000 patients each year, making it the busiest in the state. In addition, Mercy One, the emergency medical helicopter, can be anywhere in Iowa in less than one hour. Established in 1986, this service now has two full-time helicopters – one stationed in Des Moines and one in Knoxville. The department has also evolved into a major trauma center complete with the development of the Children’s Emergency Center in 2000.  It maintains smaller instruments, other specialized equipment, a specially-trained staff and a pediatric trauma suite.


Health care in Des Moines continued to evolve.  In 2000, The Iowa Heart Hospital at Mercy was created by merging the largest cardiology group in Iowa with the expertise of a multi-disciplinary heart care team. The facility conducted 1,094 open-heart surgeries and 23,361 interventional and diagnostic cardiac catheterization procedures in 2000.  In 2001, Mercy Medical Center purchased the assets of Metropolitan Medical Center (formerly Des Moines General) located at E. 12th and Lyon and renamed it Mercy Capitol. Mercy replaced the aging facility with a new 149-bed hospital in West Des Moines in 2009.

In 2002, the Board and Administration at Mercy announced a new mult-year facility and services development program called “Mercy Momentum.”  The comprehensive plans called for the renovation and modernization of existing facilities as well as the construction of new facilities to better distribute services throughout the Des Moines metro area.  Since that announcement Mercy has completed approximately $500 million in capital investments including major improvements to the Central Campus:

  • Construction and opening of a new East Tower on the Central Campus.  This six-story wing includes new Critical Care Units, Neonatal Intensive Care Nursery, Birthing Center, the Ruan Neuroscience Center and educational and conference facilities.
  • Renovation and expansion of the Surgery Department
  • Renovation and expansion of the Emergency Department
  • A new Gastro-intestinal (GI) Center
  • New Cardiac Catheterization Recovery Unit
  • New Medical Decision (observation) Unit
  • New and expanded Mercy Children’s Hospital with the only in-hospital Ronald McDonald facility.
  • New Behavioral Medicine inpatient facilities for both adults and adolescents, and new walk-in Help Center
  • Demolition of some old buildings on and near the campus, and construction of  two privately-owned medical office buildings and a privately-owned senior housing facility.

Mercy’s investment also included ambulatory facilities such as:

  • Mercy North, a comprehensive outpatient facility in Ankeny
  • Mercy East, a comprehensive outpatient facility in Pleasant Hill
  • The Healthy Living Campus in Clive, which includes a freestanding Mercy Cancer Center, Ambulatory Surgery Center, Sleep Center and the Healthy Living Center – a partnership with the YMCA to offer the first medically-based fitness center in Iowa.
  • Multiple neighborhood clinics for Mercy Clinics physicians, staff and patients, in communities such as Waukee, Ankeny, Indianola, Urbandale, Des Moines and others.

The above is not a comprehensive list, but communicates clearly the determination of the leaders at Mercy to meet the needs of the communities they serve – both by providing the most modern medical facilities and best healing environments possible, and by ensuring primary care services are distributed appropriately to the locations where families need them.


For more than 120 years, Mercy Medical Center has been one of Iowa’s premier medical centers. Its Mission today, under President Bob Ritz and CEO David Vellinga, remains to nurture the healing ministry of the Church by bringing it new life, energy and viability in the 21st Century, while emphasizing human dignity, social justice and healthier communities.

(515) 247-3121
1111 6th Avenue
Des Moines, Iowa 50314

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