H. Robert Cathcart, 92, formerly of Philadelphia, the longtime administrator and president of Pennsylvania Hospital whose careful stewardship earned him the moniker “Mr. Hospital,” died Saturday, Feb. 25, of cardiopulmonary arrest at Waverly Heights, Gladwyne.
“He was one of the health-care giants,” said Rick Pollack, president and CEO of the American Hospital Association. “Much of the AHA’s movement during the second half of the 20th century toward a vision of hospitals as grand instruments for community service, and of pushing clinical services into the community – that had Bob Cathcart’s fingerprints all over it.”
Mr. Cathcart spent most of his life in Society Hill and went so far as to live with his family on the grounds of the hospital at Eighth and Spruce Streets, where at times he could be seen picking up trash.
A stickler for details, he kept close tabs on the medical institution for 42 years, until his retirement in 1991.
“He was known to climb the stairs of the hospital daily, from the basement where he might check in with the plumbers and carpenters, to the nursing floors and doctors’ offices,” his family said in a tribute. “His hands-on approach to management allowed him to monitor the pulse of the institution and react quickly to emergencies and other problems calmly, but decisively.”
When Mr. Cathcart joined the hospital staff as an administrative assistant in 1949, only 30 of its 400 beds were occupied by paying customers, according to a 1997 profile in Modern Healthcare magazine. The rest of the hospital was divided into 40-bed charity wards.
“We needed to get a substantial base of patients who could pay,” Mr. Cathcart was quoted as saying in the magazine.
By the time he became chief executive in 1952, the fledgling Blue Cross insurance company had requested that he divide the hospital into two-bed rooms to attract business. Though the hospital board initially viewed the proposal as extravagant, Mr. Cathcart had a new pavilion built anyway, with two-bed rooms, each attached to a bathroom. Paying patients streamed in, making the hospital solvent.
Mr. Cathcart also added specialties such as urology and orthopedic surgery. He found grants to improve research programs and offered teaching physicians a supply of top-notch interns. He nurtured the doctors and improved teaching programs for nurses.
With the hospital on solid financial ground, Mr. Cathcart looked outside its brick walls, setting up neighborhood health centers and public health programs that were well ahead of the times, Modern Healthcare wrote.
“If you do well by your community, then they won’t let you falter,” he told the magazine. “They’ll support you and carry you through.”
While Mr. Cathcart acted decisively at the local level, he also left his imprint on national health policy through his work as a leader of the American Hospital Association.
He served as the organization’s chairman in 1976, led the search for a president in 1985, and grappled with issues such as nursing education and health care for the poor. In 1983, he received the association’s Distinguished Service Award, and in 1997 was inducted into its Health Care Hall of Fame.
Born in Odebolt, Iowa, Mr. Cathcart graduated from Roosevelt High School in Des Moines and studied economics at Drake University there before joining the Army Air Force. He served in the Pacific theater during World War II.
Afterward, he graduated from the University of Iowa, earned a degree in hospital administration from the University of Toronto in 1949, and completed a W.K. Kellogg Foundation fellowship in Battle Creek, Mich.
Mr. Cathcart was working at the foundation when he received word that a job as an administrative assistant was open in Philadelphia. He took it, but found the city noise and grit disturbing.
Fortunately, Pennsylvania Hospital, founded in 1751 by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Bond, was an oasis in the city -- partly hospital, partly museum.
It was a mix of historic 18th-century buildings with pine floors and 19th-century edifices with beautiful pink marble and granite columns, the Inquirer wrote on Sept. 9, 1991. Dinner was served on an original china pattern called Franklin’s Flora. Linens were crisp, hallways spotless, woodwork polished, and gardens tended.
“You don’t want a hospital to look like a bus station,” Mr. Cathcart was quoted as saying. “But you also don’t want it to be elegant, too splashy. You want it to be strong, like a trust company, to give the message that we’ll be here tomorrow when somebody needs us.”
It wasn’t long before Mr. Cathcart became involved in providing health care for the disadvantaged through the nonprofit South Philadelphia Health Action Inc. He was chairman of the Delaware Valley Hospital Council, president of the Hospital Association of Pennsylvania, commissioner of the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals, and chairman of the National Commission on Nursing. He also was an international consultant.
Among the many accolades he received was Pennsylvania Hospital’s Good Samaritan Award and an honorary doctorate from Villanova University.
Usually formal and restrained, Mr. Cathcart once surprised a hospital intern by jumping onto the handrail inside an elevator to pick some trash out of an overhead light receptacle. On another occasion, while sick in bed, he held a staff meeting in his bedroom, with his business shirt and tie peeking out from the covers.
When not pursuing hospital business, Mr. Cathcart enjoyed swimming and reading the newspaper. He loved walking the family Welsh corgi through Society Hill. He often took visitors to the hospital on those walks, regaling them with local history. He could be seen riding his bike to meetings throughout Center City.
He married Tressa J Bolt, a nurse who substituted for him at the hospital when he was away on business. They traveled the world together and were a great team, the family said.
Since 2000, the couple had lived at Waverly Heights, the Gladwyne retirement community. They had been married for 65 years when she died in 2016.
He is survived by a daughter, Tressa Ann Cathcart Silberberg, and three grandchildren.
At Mr. Cathcart’s request, there will be no funeral. He donated his body to science.