Coming Full Circle The Clifton Springs Sanitarium: Clifton Springs Hospital & Clinic

The warm, red sandstone Sanitarium stands today as welcoming to the visitor as when its beneficent founder, Henry Foster, MD, stood, welcoming guests in the late 1800s. The San, as it has been affectionately called for most of its 107 years, was the grand, final building that Dr. Foster erected in 1896 on the sulphur brook in the village of Clifton Springs, to provide a healing place for body, mind and spirit.

Dr. Henry Foster was born in Norwich, Vermont, on January 18, 1821, of pioneer New England Methodist stock. He grew up with a strong religious outlook, which became the centerpiece of his future work. As a very young man, he helped support his parents and family when his father’s linseed oil manufacturing company failed. In his later teens he moved to Ohio to live with his brother, Dr. Hubbard Foster and his wife. Henry attended Milan Normal School in Ohio, and, under the tutelage of his brother and his brother-in-law, Dr. Horner, learned homeopathy and hydrotherapy.  He then attended Western Reserve Medical College in Cleveland, Ohio. After graduating, he became the Medical Director at the New Graefenberg Water Cure, near Utica, New York. His work became well known, and he soon was being courted by three other water-cure institutions. He declined these lucrative positions because of an experience in which he felt a call from God to a different life:

“When I came to myself, I was a changed man, with other principles, ambitions and aspirations in my heart. I had started out with the determination to succeed in business and make a position for myself…I was taken out of these things…in a way marvelous to me.

I believe thoroughly that He planned this institution long before I lived; …so, He finally chose me, and some others with me, to develop what you now see.”
— Samuel Hawley Adams, The Life of Henry Foster, MD, Clifton Springs Library Association.

The sulphur brook at Clifton Springs had been used by generations of Native American People to “heal the sick and refresh the weary”. In the early 19th century the first white pioneers came and a small settlement grew around the springs, with an inn, a smithy and a half dozen houses. The pioneers learned about the curative powers of the sulphur brook and, around 1825, built a shed-like bathhouse with a trough near the main spring. Many came on horseback and carriage from Geneva and Canandaigua to fill jugs with the sulphur water.

It was the reputation of those springs and a mandate from God to create a water cure based on Christian principles that brought Dr. Foster to the sulphur springs. In 1849, he purchased the wild sulphur brook and marsh with 10 acres of ground for $750 from Mr. Oliver Phelps of the Phelps & Gorham Purchase. He brought his year’s savings of $1,000 from his work at New Graefenberg, sold 20 shares of stock valued at $500 each and set about to build a wooden water cure at a cost of $23,000. Guests were charged $5 to $8 per week for room, board and medical care. The venture was soon successful and a dividend was paid the shareholders.

This first building Dr. Foster constructed was dedicated and opened with a waiting line of patients on September 13, 1850. In 1854 it became known as the Clifton Springs Water Cure. The popularity of the water cure brought the need for expanded facilities. Construction of a second set of buildings, made of brick, was started in 1856 and, when completed in 1871, became known as the Clifton Springs Sanitarium Company.  Many therapies were added to the care available, including hand massage, Turkish and salt baths, and a gymnasium for indoor exercise. The grounds had walking paths along creeks, gardens, tennis courts and a nine-hole golf course. In 1882, Dr. Foster demolished the west half of the building and began the grand structure of his vision, the stately sanitarium. It is 244 feet long, five stories in height, with a large, glassed area on the roof known as the Solarium and, as in all of the buildings, a chapel. The building had electric lights, gas and the most modern of medical equipment. Guests flocked to the Clifton Springs San.

The Sanitarium is only the shell of the story. Within its walls could be found some of the finest and best of medical care in the region. Dr. Foster’s approach was holistic and comprehensive, drawing the best from conventional Western medicine, from homeopathy and hydrotherapy, and physical medicine. In addition, being a pioneer in mental health, he believed that the mind and body were one, in health, illness and healing. And he believed that the spirit was to be the first focus in treating people.

“The more I studied…one thing became certain in my mind, that if we were to do the largest amount of good, we must give to the elements in man’s being the same order in importance that God gives. He always mentioned the soul first and the body second. He has put the two together, but always towering above the interests of the body are the interests of the soul…even when we are searching for physical health.”

The approaches to care were preventative as well as curative. Guests were taught the importance of fresh air, good eating habits, exercise and, of course, prayer. The Sanitarium provided free or low cost rest and recuperation for missionaries on furlow. People who could not afford the treatments were provided care just as any guests of the San.  People came from around the world for the restorative treatments and to be cared for in the finest tradition.

Dr. Foster was a dedicated professional who kept up with the latest advances in all fields related to the care of people.The water cure was the first hospital in the region. The Sanitarium was the second hospital in the nation to have x-ray capability. He pioneered the opening of a laboratory for the study and diagnosis of disease.  He introduced a surgical department and an eye, ear, nose and throat division. The Occupational Therapy Association was started at Clifton Springs, and it started the first open-ward psychiatric unit in the United States. In 1892, one of the earliest nursing schools was designed by Dr. Foster and continued until 1934. There has always been and will always be a chaplain and a chapel on the campus; no other hospital in the country has had such a commitment.

With all the progressive advances, nothing was more important than the patient-centered care Dr. Foster provided. Every morning he visited each patient, asking about their illness, their home and family, the work they did, their understanding of their illness and perception of recovery. He learned a great deal about illness and recovery and earned the respect and confidence of his patients.
In 1881, the sanitarium was passed by a deed of trust, by Dr. Foster and his wife, to the control of a self-perpetuating board of trustees. Some members were chosen by the board and others held their trusteeships ex officio, by virtue of their offices in certain religious organizations, with several denominations being represented on the board. All profits must go back into patient care and the plant. The institution is to maintain a chapel and provide a chaplaincy service. The Sanitarium chapel, which was used in Dr. Foster’s time for daily services for patients and staff, still provides a spiritual haven with its stunning stained-glass windows and Tiffany Mosaic of the Last Supper over the altar.

An addition, the Woodbury Building, was built in 1926, providing physician offices and expanded hospital services. With the onset of many political and financial considerations throughout the 1930s and ’40s, the sanitarium went through a variety of changes. Unfortunately, the 1950s brought the closing of the sulphur baths.

In 1971, the board of trustees dedicated a new, modern hospital on the grounds behind the San. Through the commitment of concerned citizens, the San was saved and transformed into apartments for senior citizens.

The hospital’s perspective had become conventional Western medical therapeutics, but it always maintained its spiritual focus.  Recently the Spiritual Care Department was established. It has a program that provides trained volunteers twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

In the later part of the 20th century, there was a renewed interest in the healing modalities of Dr. Foster’s day as well as other therapies. In the 1990s, a wave of research was initiated by the U.S. government and other institutions to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of “alternative/complementary” therapies because so many people were seeking these modalities.

Clifton Springs Hospital & Clinic is reinstituting the traditional water therapies and providing other complementary and alternative therapies at The Springs of Clifton, Integrated Health Department. The feasibility of reopening the sulphur baths in a wing of the hospital is being pursued.  The baths (hydrotherapy) would be offered along with the other therapies found at The Springs: acupuncture, aroma­therapy, ayurveda, chiropractic, clas­sical Chinese medicine, Hatha yoga, healing touch, holistic nursing consultations, hydrotherapy, massage, medical hypnosis, naturopathy, QiGong, Taijiquan, nutritional and spiritual counseling.

The wish of Dr. Foster to provide the best medical care, conventional Western medicine and other effective therapies, continues to be his living legacy, literally in the shadow of the San.

“It is my wish that the Medical department be conducted upon the most liberal and scientific principles, always seeking the highest good of the patient, morally and physically.”
— Henry Foster, MD, 1821-1901, Founder of Clifton Springs Hospital & Clinic.


by Charlotte Wytias, RN
Charlotte Wytias, RN, is a Colorado native, happily transplanted in the Finger Lakes of New York. She is the program manager of The Springs of Clifton, Integrated Health Department, Clifton Springs Hospital.