Penn State History Lesson: Student Health Services

Almost all current students are aware of University Health Services (UHS) and have probably gone there after coming down with the infamous flu that seems to circulate each year. While we take its convenience and wide variety of services for granted, UHS has a long history that can be traced all across campus for the past 100 years.

After Penn State had a scarlet fever outbreak in 1913, the university recognized the need for established student health services, which they named College Health Service. With only $5,000, the administration decided to transform a residence for deans of the College of Mines into an infirmary. That building is known today as Ihlseng House and is located next to the library.

The cottage opened with its new purpose and name, the Health Services Building, in January 1915 under the direction of a singular physician, Dr. Warren Forsythe, and two nurses. The infirmary contained six patient beds, an operating room, a dispensary, and a health service laboratory along with a waiting room and Dr. Forsythe’s private office.

College Health Service was only open to students a total of nine hours a week on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and Saturday evenings. To visit a student staying overnight, visitors were required to pay 50 cents during the day or a dollar at nighttime. A one-night stay would run a student $1.25.

The Health Services Building was used as an infirmary for 15 years until 1929. Thanks to a hefty contribution from the Potato Growers of the State of Pennsylvania, the university built and opened a larger facility. The new building on Shortlidge Road was known as the Penn State College Hospital and opened in 1929.

Floor plans from 1929 show the new structure contained a small operating room, offices, an ambulance receiving area, and a kitchen along with exam rooms and beds.

By this time, the staff had grown to include two physicians and seven nurses, but the student population had grown much faster and totaled about 6,000. Though moving into a new building was a step in the right direction, the facilities were less than adequate. With Mount Nittany Medical Center not yet constructed, serious cases had to travel over 10 miles to a hospital in Bellefonte.

As student enrollment increased throughout the decades, it was necessary to expand the building. Penn State received funding from the General State Authority in 1953 to put toward an expansion which was completed in 1958. When the building reopened, it was renamed the Ritenour Health Center in honor of the former Penn State alum and physician, Dr. Joseph Ritenour, who took over for Dr. Forsythe.

The 1950s renovation created two two-story wings flanking the original hospital. With the student population reaching 12,000, the need for more space was undeniable. The addition totaled around 20,000 square feet and cost $1.25 million (just over $14.2 million when adjusted for inflation).

This update added an X-ray machine, a laboratory, increased numbers of treatment and consultation rooms, a small area for dental offices, and psychological consulting rooms.

In the following years, more services and specialties were added to Ritenour Health Center as they became available, including physical therapy, outreach, and preventative health campaigns. Notably, a women’s health department was added which aimed to focus on preventative care for women in the means of annual exams and access to contraceptives.

The health center also housed a psychiatric clinic, which was combined with two other campus services in the 1980s to create the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). Somewhere along the way, the name of the department shifted to what students are familiar with today — University Health Services.

Despite the additions of space and services to Ritenour, many students still complained of long wait times and overcrowding, and that didn’t even take the age of the building into account. In 2004, the Board of Trustees floated the idea of constructing a new building that would house UHS.

In the summer of 2006, the Board of Trustees approved preliminary plans for the building which was scheduled to be completed in 2008 and cost a total of $26 million. The structure, dubbed the Student Health Center, opened in June 2008 and is what students today know to be UHS.

The new construction has allowed UHS and the Student Health Center to jump into the modern age with updated exam rooms, a large staff, and radiology and laboratory services in-house. With medicine and healthcare constantly evolving, UHS surely will as well.

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About the Author

Haylee Yocum

Haylee is a 2024 graduate of Penn State with a degree in immunology and infectious disease. She relocated to Williamsport but will not be taking any questions about what’s next in her career. Haylee continues to be fueled by dangerous amounts of caffeine and dreams of smashing the patriarchy. Any questions or discussion about Taylor Swift’s best songs can be directed to @hayleeq8 on Twitter if you must.

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