Evolution of the "World's Greatest Philanthropy"


Shriners were unstoppable in the early 1900’s. Membership grew rapidly, and the geographical range of temples widened. Between 1900 and 1918, eight new temples were created in Canada and one each in Honolulu, Mexico City and the Republic of Panama. The organization became, in fact, the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for North America. New flourishes were added to a growing tradition of colorful pageantry. More bands were formed, and the first circus is said to have opened in 1906 in Detroit. During the same period, there was growing member support for establishing an official charity. Most temples had individual philanthropies, and sometimes Shriners as an organization gave aid. After the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, Shriners sent $25,000 to help the stricken city, and in 1915, Shriners contributed $10,000 for the relief of European war victims. But neither the individual projects nor the special one-time contributions satisfied the membership, who wanted to do more. In 1919, Freeland Kendrick (Lu Lu Shriners, Philadelphia) was the Imperial Potentate-elect for the 363,744 Shriners. He had long been searching for a cause for the thriving group to support. In a visit to the Scottish Rite Hospital for Crippled Children in Atlanta, he became aware of the overwhelming orthopedic needs of children in North America. As Imperial Potentate in 1919 and 1920, he traveled more than 150,000 miles, visiting a majority of the 146 temples to campaign for an official philanthropy.

1920 Imperial Session

At the June 1920 Impe4rial Session in Portland, Oregon, Kendrick proposed establishing Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children (now Shriners Hospitals for Children), to be supported by a $2 yearly assessment from each Shriner (now $5 per year). Conservative Shriners expressed doubts about assuming this kind of responsibility. Prospects for approval were dimming when Noble Forrest Adair (Yaarab Shriners, Atlanta) rose to speak: I was lying in bed yesterday morning, about 4 o’clock…and some poor fellow who had strayed from the rest of the band…stood down there under the window for 25 minutes playing ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.'” He said that when he awoke later, “I thought of the wandering minstrel, and I wondered if there were not a deep significance in the tune that he was playing fro Shriners, ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.'” He noted, “While we have spent money for songs and spent money for bands, it’s time for the Shrine to spend money for humanity. I want to see this thing started. Let’s get rid of all the technical objections. And if there is a Shriner in North America,” he continued, “who objects to having paid the two dollars after he has seen the first crippled child helped, I will give him a check back for it myself.” When he was through, Noble Adair sat down to thunderous applause. The whole tone of the session had changed. There were other speakers, but the decision had already been reached. The resolution was passed unanimously. A committee was chosen to determine the site and personnel for the Shriners Hospital. After months of work, research and debate, the committee concluded that there should be not just one hospital but a network of hospitals throughout North America. It was an idea that appealed to Shriners, who liked to do things in a big and colorful way. When the committee brought the proposal to the 1921 Imperial Session in Des Moines, Iowa, it too was passed.

First Hospital

Before the June 1922 Imperial Session, the cornerstone was in place for the first Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children in Shreveport, La. The rules were simple: To be admitted, a child must be from a family unable to pay for the orthopaedic treatment he or she would receive (this is no longer a requirement), be under 14 years of age (later increased to 18) and be, in the opinion of the chief of staff, someone whose condition could be helped. The Shriners Hospitals network is supervised by members of the Board of Trustees, who are elected at the annual meeting of the hospital corporation. Each hospital operates under the supervision of a local Board of Governors, a chief of staff and an administrator. Members of the boards are Shriners, who serve without pay. The first patient to be admitted in 1922 was a little girl with a clubfoot, who had learned to walk on the top of her foot rather than the sole. The first child to be admitted at the Twin Cities hospital was a boy with polio. Since that time, approximately 835,000 children have been treated at the 22 Shriners Hospitals. surgical techniques developed in Shriners Hospitals have become standard in the orthopaedic world. Thousands of children have been fitted with arm and leg braces and artificial limbs, most of them made at the hospitals by expert technicians.

Orthopaedic Research

From 1950 to 1960, Shriners’ funds for helping children increased rapidly. At the same time, waiting lists of new patients for admission to Shriners Hospitals began to decline, due to the polio vaccine and new antibiotics. Thus, Shriners found themselves able to provide additional services, and leaders began to look for other ways they could help children. One result was collating medical records of patients of Shriners Hospitals. By placing the records of each patient and treatment on computer and microfilm, valuable information was made available to all Shriners surgeons and the medical world as a whole. This process, begun in 1959, also made it easier to initiate clinical research in Shriners orthopaedic hospitals. Shriners Hospitals had always engaged in clinical research, and in the early ’60’s, Shriners aggressively entered the structured research field and began earmarking funds for research projects. By 1967, Shriners were spending $20,000 on orthopaedic research. Today, the annual research budget totals approximately $37 million. Researchers are working on a wide variety of projects, including studies of bone and joint diseases, such as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis; increasing basic knowledge of the structure and function of connective tissue; and refining functional electrical stimulation, which is enabling some children with spinal cord injuries to have limited use of their arms and legs.

Entering The Burn Care Field

This expansion of orthopaedic work was not enough for Shriners. They had enough funds to further expand their philanthropy. The only question was: What unmet need could they fill? A special committee established to explore areas of need found that burn treatment was a field of service that was being bypassed. In the early ’60s, the only burn treatment center in the United States was part of a military complex. The committee was ready with a resolution for the 1962 Imperial Session in Toronto. The resolution, dated July 4, 1962, was adopted by unanimous vote. On November 1, 1963, Shriners opened a seven-bed wing in the John Sealy Hospital at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston as an interim center for the care of severely burned children. On February 1, 1964, Shriners opened a seven-bed unit in the Cincinnati General Hospital on the campus of the University of Cincinnati. A third interim operation, a five-bed unit, was opened March 13, 1964, in the Massachusetts General Hospital (Boston) under the direction of Harvard Medical School. While children were being treated in these units, separate buildings were constructed near each interim location. These buildings, three 30-bed pediatric burn hospitals, were designed to meet the special needs of burned children. At each, the staffs remain affiliated with their neighboring universities in order to better carry out Shriners Hospitals three-fold mission of treatment, research and teaching. The hospital in Galveston opened March 20, 1966; the hospital in cincinnati opened February 19, 1968; and the Boston hospital opened November 2, 1968. New facilities were constructed for all three burn hospitals in the 1990’s. The new Cincinnati and galveston hospitals were completed in 1992, and the new Boston hospital was completed in 1999. A new burn treatment center opened in 1997, in the new Shriners Hospital in Sacramento, California. This Shriners Hospital provides orthopaedic, burn and spinal cord injury care, and serves as the primary pediatric burn treatment center in the western United States. The Sacramento hospital also conducts research in all three disciplines. Since Shriners opened burn hospitals in the 1960’s, a burned child’s chance of survival has more than doubled. They have saved the lives of children with burn injuries over 90 percent of their bodies. The techniques Shriners Hospitals have pioneered to prevent the disabling effects of severe burns have made a typical life possible for thousands of burn victims. Most importantly, perhaps, Shriners’ establishment of hospitals that provide specialized care for burn injuries alerted the midi cal world to this special need, which has led tot the establishment of other burn centers. At Shriners Hospitals the work goes on, with medical staff continually searching for new ways to heal severe burns and reduce or, as much as possible, eliminate the disabling and scarring effects of those burns. Because of the special nature of the burn hospitals, they will surely always be on the frontier of burn care.

Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation

In 1980, Shriners Hospitals for Children opened a spinal cord injury (SCI) rehabilitation unit at the Philadelphia hospital. This was the first spinal cord injury unit in the United States designed for children and teenagers who sustain these injuries. By 1984, two additional spinal cord injury units were operating in the Shriners Hospitals in Chicago and San Francisco. In 1997, the San Francisco hospital, including the SCI unit, was relocated to Sacramento, California.

Cleft Lip and Palate

In 2005, the Joint Boards of Directors of Shriners Hospitals for Children and Shriners of North America added treatment of cleft lip and palate to the hospital network’s treatment disciplines. About 5,000 children are born each year with deformities of the upper lip and mouth, and comprehensive care for these conditions is often difficult to obtain. The nationally recognized program already in place at the Chicago Shriners Hospital serves as the expansion model. Shriners Hospitals offers the same state-of-the-art, complete, high-quality care in this effort as it does in its established programs for orthopaedic conditions, severe burns and spinal cord injury rehabilitation.

Rebuilding and Renovation Program

Another important undertaking that began during the 1980’s was an aggressive rebuilding and renovation program, involving the construction of new facilities and extensive renovations. In 1981, representatives at the 107th Imperial Council Session approved a major expansion and reconstruction program, which included the construction of a new orthopaedic hospital in Tampa, Florida. The opening of the Tampa hospital in 1985 – the first new hospital added to the system since the 1960’s – brought the Shriners Hospitals system back to 22 hospitals. Since 1981, 21 Shriners Hospitals have either been rebuilt or totally renovated. In 1998, the Joint Boards of Directors and Trustees decided to build a new facility for the Mexico City hospital, which underwent extensive renovations in 1989. The new facility opened in May, 2006. In 1989, another significant decision was made when the Shriners voted to construct a new hospital in the Northern California region to replace the existing San Francisco hospital. In 1990, Sacramento was chosen as the site for the new hospital. construction began in 1993, and in 1997, the new Northern California hospital in Sacramento opened its doors. Also during the 1980’s, because of the high number of patients with myelodysplasia (spina bifida), many of the Shriners Hospitals developed special programs to provide comprehensive, multidisciplinary care to these patients. Previously, Shriners Hospitals had provided the orthopaedic care these children needed, but in 1986, the Joint Boards of Directors and Trustees approved a policy permitting the hospitals to address the multiple needs of these children by providing their medical, neurosurgical and urological requirements, as well as their psychosocial, nutritional and recreational care. During the 1980’s, the Shriners Hospitals in Los Angeles and Springfield, Massachusetts, added regional prosthetic research programs. Both programs conduct research into ways to improve or create new prosthetics and help rehabilitate children with limb-deficiencies. These two programs, in addition to various other research programs throughout the 22 hospitals, ensure that Shriners Hospitals for Children remain a leader in the field of children’s orthotics and prosthetics.

Shriners Hospitals for Children

In 1996, representatives took another significant step when they voted to officially change the name of their philanthropy to Shriners Hospitals for Children, permanently eliminating the word “crippled” from the organization’s corporate name. Representatives made the change in an effort to have the name better reflect the mission of Shriners Hospitals and expansion of services over the years, including the opening of the burn hospitals and the addition of programs of comprehensive care for children with myelodysplasia and cleft lip and palate. The new name is intended to reflect the philosophy of Shriners Hospitals, which provide medical care for children at no charge, based only on what’s best for the child. The new name also does not label children in any way, but simply recognizes them for what they are: children.


One way Shriners Hospitals for Children improves lives is through outcomes research. This type of research looks for opportunities to improve hospital practices, both clinical and operational, to help bring better care and quality of life to patients. The outcomes studies utilize more than one Shriners Hospital, and the projects, studies and performance improvement initiatives directly impact changes in operations and patient care practices at all 22 Shriners Hospitals. To ensure Shriners Hospitals for Children is constantly on the cutting edge of research, staff enlists the help of advisory boards, which are made up of eminent surgeons, clinicians and scientists who review grants and offer expertise on project funding. The Medical Advisory Board, Research Advisory Board and Clinical Outcomes Studies Advisory Board also provide review, guidance and subjective assessment to many areas of Shriners Hospitals.

Note: The following essay was quoted from “A Short History, Shriners Hospitals for Children & Shriners of North America,” which can be downloaded in its entirety from the Shriners of North America website.