Before Dr. Emma Rochelle Wheeler opened Walden Hospital in Chattanooga in 1915, African Americans who required medical care were hospitalized in the basements of existing majority hospitals such as Erlanger Hospital or Newell Clinic. Wheeler, a physician who had practiced medicine in the city since 1905, purchased two lots on the corner of East Eighth and Douglas Streets and, using her own money, erected a three-story brick hospital. Dedicated on July 30, 1915, Walden Hospital became the first hospital in Chattanooga to be owned, operated, and staffed by African Americans and dedicated to their treatment. The hospital had a thirty-bed capacity with nine private rooms containing two beds each and a twelve-bed ward. The hospital consisted of three departments: surgical, maternity, and nursery. Seventeen physicians and surgeons used the hospital along with a house staff of two and three nurses. The hospital proved so successful that the construction debt was paid in less than three years.
Wheeler, one of only three women in a class of sixty-eight, graduated from Meharry Medical College in 1905. After her marriage to Dr. Joseph N. Wheeler, the two moved to Chattanooga and opened a practice on East Main Street where they treated patients there for ten years. For more than twenty years, Wheeler not only practiced medicine but also trained nurses at Walden. She founded the Nurses Services Club, a unique prepaid hospitalization plan for Club members. In addition to her medical practice and teaching duties, Wheeler also raised a family.
After almost four decades of dedicated service to the community, Walden Hospital closed its doors on June 30, 1952. Although in poor health, Wheeler continued her practice. The former Walden Hospital has been converted into apartments.
Wheeler, a pioneer black Chattanooga woman physician, died in 1957. In 1962 the Chattanooga City Commission voted to name the Housing Authority’s newest residential project the Emma Wheeler Homes. In 1990 the Chattanooga African American Museum in conjunction with the Tennessee Historical Commission placed a state historical marker at the site of Walden Hospital to honor Dr. Wheeler and the hospital.