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Hugh Lena’s life of service

In 1922, 14-year-old Elizabeth Weed had the earache from hell. The mastoid bone behind one ear was dangerously infected, a condition that at the time was a leading cause of death in children.

As we anxiously await an effective vaccine against COVID-19, we can empathize with people who lived before the advent of penicillin and other lifesaving pharmaceuticals, when illnesses that are treatable now were often fatal. It took emergency surgery performed by a New London physician, Hugh Lena, to save Elizabeth’s hearing and probably her life.

As her daughter, I’m very grateful.

Hugh Francis Lena (1888-1948) grew up in Lawrence, Mass., the son of Irish immigrants. His father, Patrick Lenagh, was born during the potato famine and grew up in the agricultural depression that followed. Patrick immigrated to the United States around 1870 and changed his name (or it was changed for him) to Lena. Although he may have been illiterate, he held a responsible job in a woolen mill, married, and raised a large, accomplished family.

Hard work and ability, more than good luck, accounted for the family’s success. For example, in 1890, a tornado struck Lawrence, reducing the Lena home to kindling wood. An unhinged door became a missile, knocking Hugh’s parents and 3-month-old baby sister down a flight of stairs and breaking some bones. Photos of the tornado’s devastation look a lot like New London after the 1938 hurricane, but little setbacks like that couldn’t keep this family down. By the next generation, their ranks included a doctor, a dentist, an educator, a banker and a lawyer. Hugh was the doctor, with degrees from Dartmouth College and Johns Hopkins Medical School.

When the United States entered World War I, Hugh joined the Navy medical corps and served in New London as surgeon-general at Memorial Hospital, a facility located on Garfield Avenue. Memorial (which soon merged with the Joseph Lawrence Public Hospital to become today’s L+M) had been turned into a treatment center exclusively for military personnel suffering from the Spanish Flu. Mitchell Isolation Hospital on nearby Colman Street was also treating pandemic victims; a tunnel connected the two facilities. The number of influenza cases escalated at such an overwhelming pace that the entire city was under quarantine, and New London’s State Armory had to be converted into a hospital to handle the overflow. Hugh was put in charge there.

By 1920, the pandemic had subsided, enabling Hugh to resume civilian life and take some important steps. He burnished his medical credentials with additional training at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, and opened his own 20-bed hospital on Broad Street near Williams Park in New London. The hospital was up to date, featuring the latest equipment like X-ray technology; special attention was paid to ventilation and sanitation practices. When Hugh got married, his wife, Helen, was a true partner in her husband’s enterprise; while Hugh treated patients, she cooked the meals and did the hospital laundry.

Around 1940, Hugh built a handsome colonial that still stands at 160 Broad St. According to one of his grandchildren, Dr. Patricia Lena Cole, the interior is remarkable for finely crafted architectural details. Hugh, who could remember what hard times were like, made a point of employing skilled artisans who were out of work because of the Great Depression. Exquisite murals in each room, hand-painted by local artists, were accepted in lieu of payment for medical care.

Hugh suffered a fatal heart attack in 1948 while performing an operation. Dying with his scrubs on seems symbolic of his life of service. He left behind four children, all of whom became medical professionals. Many members of subsequent generations continue to follow in his footsteps.

Special thanks to Dr. Cole for her gracious help with this column, and to Mary Beth Baker, New London Landmarks researcher, who provided information about the Lenas and early New London hospitals. I was delighted to find a photograph of Hugh in Baker’s material. He looks very kind.

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