Church history often treats us to accounts of mind-numbing feats that leave us shaking our heads over the courage and tenacity of our Mormon forebearers. They were a plucky group, for sure—including the women. And though we don’t often hear about the incredible deeds our female progenitors accomplished, there are a few particularly impressive ones that, to some degree, changed history.
One of the heroines of the Relief Society was Clarissa Smith Williams, the sixth general president of the Relief Society (1921-28) and the first native Utahan to serve in that post.
Photo of Clarissa Smith Williams from Wikimedia Commons
Clarissa Smith was born April 21, 1859, the first of five daughters born to apostle George A. Smith and his seventh and last wife, Susan Elizabeth West Smith. Under Clarissa’s supervision, the Relief Society first began distributing free milk to infants, operating summer camps for underprivileged children, funding loans to provide training for public health nurses, and providing free health exams for preschool children. Their reach eventually expanded to help needy girls and women find jobs, hold health clinics, place children for adoption, send aid to war-torn Europe, operate a storehouse that distributed goods to the poor, and offer training courses on topics including child rearing, disease, care for the sick, hygiene, crime prevention, relief work, and other topics.
Answering a Need
But possibly the most unprecedented thing Sister Smith accomplished happened in 1924. Under her supervision, the Relief Society established the Cottonwood Maternity Hospital, which operated for nearly 40 years. The hospital, formerly located at 404 East 5600 South in Salt Lake, was a major lifesaving facility run and maintained by volunteers from the Cottonwood Stake Relief Society.
Back in the day, Cottonwood was a region “out in the boondocks.” There was little access to health care, and sometimes mothers in the neighborhood died during childbirth from conditions that could have been prevented if they had received proper care. When Sister Smith heard about this, she swung into action: out-of-town places needed to establish maternity hospitals where possible, she said, and Cottonwood was first on her list. Marshaling the stake Relief Society, she launched her plan.
The Perfect Location
First, they needed a building. After poking around all over Cottonwood, they finally settled on a spacious two-story brick home on one and a half acres of land. Expansive brick additions were eventually built on the back to house 23 patient rooms, and the original second floor served as living quarters for the nurses.
The hospital opened in October 1924. Considered a Church facility, it was dedicated on December 10th that same year by Elder Melvin J. Ballard of the Council of the Twelve.
Expenses were kept as low as possible so every woman could afford to use the hospital. And we’re talking really low: in 1949, after 25 years of operation, the hospital raked in a whopping net profit of 35 cents. Much of the labor associated with the hospital was simply donated by the Relief Society sisters in the stake. In fact, for several years, each woman in the stake was asked to donate one quart of home-bottled fruit to the facility. Once the hospital got on its financial feet, fruit was eventually purchased and stake Relief Society sisters bottled it in the hospital kitchen as a service project instead.
A Legacy of Miracles
Miracles from this inspired project were seen from the start. In the first 10 months of the hospital’s operation, 110 babies were born there. And not a single mother lost her life during the first 26 years of operation, according to a Deseret News article about the milestone, despite the fact that thousands of babies had been born there. If Sister Smith had been able to see into the future of her hospital in Cottonwood, she would have undoubtedly been very pleased and grateful for the many lives saved by an inspired recognition of a need and the faith and hard work of the Relief Society sisters.
For additional information about people in Church history who did intriguing things, check out Kathryn Jenkins Gordon’s latest book,In-Laws, Outlaws, and Everyone in Between: More Colorful Characters in Mormon History, available at Seagull Book stores, Deseret Book stores, and deseretbook.com.