Tech in Retrospect

Henderson and Henderson: Focused on health by Clara B. Cox M.A.'84

Henderson Hall

Compared to its heyday, Henderson Hall is now relatively quiet. The building that began as a home for Virginia Tech's presidents housed the College Infirmary for most of its 129-year existence. And the building's name honors the man who served that infirmary longer than any other physician--Dr. William Frank Henderson.

The evolution of a building

Now the oldest building on campus constructed specifically to serve Virginia Tech, Henderson Hall, initially known simply as the President's Home, housed the first five chief executives. Completed in 1876, it had as its first resident Tech's first president, Charles L. C. Minor.

Around 1900, plans were made to construct a new president's home and to convert the first one into a hospital. Remodeling, begun in 1902, included changes to the façade, renovation of the interior, and the addition of an extension. The project provided 38 hospital beds.

The infirmary staff offered the best care possible in the new facilities, but that didn't preclude someone--probably a cadet--from hanging a sign on the wall in 1907 that read: "All cadets attending Sick Call do so at their own risk."

The building was enlarged again in 1929 and then again in 1951 to its current size. Since the infirmary moved to McComas Hall in 1998, Henderson has housed several departments. Today, its principal residents are Student Life, Services for Students with Disabilities, and some art and art history faculty offices and classrooms/studios.

Dedicated doctor and football fan

In 1891, Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (VAMC)--Tech's first name--hired Henderson, a student during the college's first year (1872-73), and Dr. Kent Black, son of a VAMC founder, as its college physicians. The men worked together until 1896, when Black left, placing Henderson in charge of medical services until 1920.

During 34 years with the infirmary--23 in the building named for him--Henderson not only "doctored" the cadets, but also took part in campus activities, chaperoning dances and attending football games. Apparently a rabid football fan, he was arrested in 1894 for creating a disturbance with a referee over a crucial call during a VAMC–VMI game, which VAMC lost 10–6.

The doctor's work tied him intimately to the cadets' very lives and brought him into contact with more than 350 patients annually. Sometimes his job proved difficult. Once, he had to amputate a cadet's arm below the elbow, and over the years, a number of cadets died. But it was probably during the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 that Henderson worked the hardest. With the infirmary filled, Army and Navy surgeons were called in to treat the overflow of patients housed in the Field House. Sentinels kept visitors from entering the facilities, which, at one point, held as many as 206 cases. Nine cadets died.

When Henderson reached the age of 67 in 1920, the college reduced his workload and named him a consulting physician and assistant to a new doctor, his final position at the college until his death in 1935.

Tomorrow's Henderson

If all goes according to plan, the old building will be remodeled once again, beginning in summer 2006. Following completion of its facelift in 2008-09, several fine arts departments will move in, and the parking lot will make way for an 8,000-seat theater. But the spirit of the doctor who spent so many years treating sick students within those walls will remain, an ethereal monument to Henderson, the man.