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Friday, July 9, 2010

Emily P. Bissell

As you drive down Newport Gap Pike and pass Emily P. Bissell Hospital, have you ever wondered, "Why its named that? Who is Emily P. Bissell? Why does she have a hospital named after her?" I hope to answer some of your questions.

Emily Perkins Bissell was born in Wilmington, Delaware on May 31, 1861 to a prominent family. Emily was the first daughter, and the second child, of four born to Champion Aristarcus Bissell, a banker and real estate investor, and Josephine (Wales) Bissell. Emily was educated both in Wilmington and at Miss Charlier's Private School in New York City. When Emily was 15 years old, her Sunday school took a trip to see urban poverty firsthand. I would imagine this was the turning point in Emily Bissell's life. Just seven years later at the age of 22, Emily had raised enough funds to start an organization to provide social services to Wilmington's immigrants. She started a youth club, which was incorporated in 1889 as the West End Reading Room. As the club's secretary-treasurer Emily developed the reading room into what would become the West End Neighborhood House, which is still in operation today.

In 1909 the settlement (an organization led by Bissell) opened Delaware's first free kindergarten. It also provided a playground, a free milk station, classes for adults and children, a boys' brigade, and, in association with the State Board of Health, a well-baby clinic.

Emily played an important role in opening Delaware's first Red Cross Chapter in 1904. She held the role of Secretary with the Delaware branch, a position that proved to be beneficial for Emily (and many others) in 1907.

Emily's cousin, Dr. Joseph Wales, a physician at the Brandywine Sanatorium, needed Emily's help. The "Brandywine Shack", as it was known, was an open-air tuberculosis sanatorium, and it needed Emily's help. They were not going to have enough money to get the Sanatorium through the winter. They needed to raise $300. Knowing of Emily's connections to the Red Cross and her fundraising abilities, Dr. Joseph Wales turned to Emily for assistance.

"Well, Emily," he wrote to her, "see what you can do. We're down to our last dollar. Unless $300 can be raised somehow, the poor patients will have to be sent home to die...and perhaps to spread the disease to other people. I hope you'll find a way. You've got to help us."

Emily had read about the Christmas Seal program in an article written by Danish-born Jacob Riis, and she began designing her own. Einar Holbøll from Denmark designed the first Christmas seal in 1904. She got the approval from Red Cross to use their logo in the design of the stamp. She thought that if she could sell them for one cent so even the poorest people could contribute to the fight against TB. Emily borrowed $40 from friends to have the stamps printed. The stamps were sold in the Wilmington Post office, the first stamp being sold December 7, 1907.

On her first day, Bissell raised $25, but then sales slowed. She asked for help from The North American, one of Philadelphia’s most popular newspapers. Every day the newspaper ran articles under the heading, “Stamp Out Tuberculosis.” Her Seals sold so quickly that she had to order another 250,000. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt learned about the campaign and enthusiastically endorsed it. By the end of the Christmas season, Emily Bissell had raised $3,000. Brandywine Shack had been saved! Emily spent the remainder of her life promoting Christmas Seals and the fight against tuberculosis until her death in 1948.

That original Brandywine Shack was located in the Timiken Woods near Brandywine Creek (if anyone knows where that was, I'd love to hear it!) and had a capacity of eight beds. With the success of Emily's Christmas Seals, a new and larger facility was built in 1910 at a place called Hope Farm in MCH. By 1919 it had a capacity of 60 for white patients, while Edgewood Sanatorium across the road had room for 20 black patients. In 1955, Brandywine was renamed the Emily P. Bissell Sanatorium, and was changed to Emily P. Bissell Hospital in 1957. Currently, it is a long-term care facility licensed as a nursing home.

So the next time you are driving down Newport Gap Pike, and you see this facility - take a moment to reflect on the woman who gave her life to others. From her early life to the end, Emily devoted herself, to give those less fortunate a purpose, a chance a life. In addition to all of her remarkable achievements, Emily Bissell also wrote poetry under the name Priscilla Leonard.

Great thoughts speak only to the thoughtful mind, but great actions speak to all mankind. ~ Emily P. Bissell

Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • Here is an article from the Sunday Morning Star dated July 7, 1907 that talks about the opening of the Brandywine Sanatarium. It mentions their financial difficulties, but frustratingly, it doesn't say where the sanatarium is, except for "Brandywine Hundred".
  • Here is another newspaper article, this one from the July 9, 1911 Sunday Morning Star. It gives a little insight into early life at Hope Farm, and a concert performed there.


  1. This was helpful. Thank You. I am doing a paper on her poetry, but i needed information about her, thank you.

  2. Pass that hospital almost daily on my drive to Wilmington. Seems like a spooky place and always thought it would be a good "Halloween" haunted fundraiser and bet the older folks would have fun scaring everyone! Nice to hear what an amazing woman was behind the name...thanks for the info!

  3. Hello Scott, I came across your site while researching info on the "Edgewood Sanitarium". It was included in this article here on your blog. I a have a photo that might interest you in regard to that, from 1941. Please email me at jbradyiii@gmail.com and I can send the pic. I also have a blog on DE family history as well, it can be seen at giusvalla.blogspot.com

  4. I saw a note in this article: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2293&dat=19470907&id=C94mAAAAIBAJ&sjid=WAIGAAAAIBAJ&pg=2736,5079406
    that the Shack was across the creek from the Bancroft plant.

    1. Interesting. So that would put it somewhere in Alapocas Woods Park. Since it was apparently a small "shack", I wonder if there's any trace of it left to be found?

  5. This is a very interesting article I work at Emily Bissell for years and never knew her story. Thank you

  6. Replies
    1. I didn't know that. Thanks for the update