The name Annie Jacobs Davis is synonymous with Montefiore Hospital. Montefiore was the first Jewish hospital in Western Pennsylvania. It came out of a need for a medical facility that could provide care for Jewish patients and career opportunities for Jewish doctors. Annie was widely known as “The Mother of Montefiore Hospital” because of her work to establish the hospital, but her philanthropy didn’t begin or end with Montefiore. Annie Jacobs Davis dedicated her life to helping those in need and contributing to the future of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh.
Annie Jacobs immigrated to Pittsburgh from Russia with her family in the 1870s. Although the family had few resources, her mother, Sarah Jacobs, taught her children to be generous and charitable. When she was 18, Annie Jacobs married a Lithuanian immigrant named Barnett Davis. They had an open-door policy for the sick and needy. In a 1974 oral history interview with the National Council of Jewish Women, Pittsburgh Section, Annie’s son Jacob Davis recalled how people would come to the house at all hours of the night seeking assistance. He also humorously recalled feeling slightly annoyed after arriving home from school during his lunch hour to find “customers,” as he put it, wanting help.
Around 1898, Annie organized a group of women called the Hebrew Ladies Hospital Aid Society (HLHAS) in response to cries for a Jewish hospital. The group’s purpose was to provide care for the sick and opportunities for doctors. Annie was the first president of HLHAS and remained in the position for 20 years. The intent of the HLHAS was to provide care for Jewish patients; it didn’t discriminate based on color or creed.
While caring for the sick, the members of HLHAS also paid regular dues that were set aside for purchasing a building to use as a hospital. With the help of the Montefiore Hospital Association, organized by their male counterparts, HLHAS was able to purchase the property on Centre Avenue.
Within 30 days of its opening in 1908, the hospital had already reached capacity. In an interview printed in the Jewish Criterion on July 12, 1929, Annie recalled, “We found it necessary to take over sun parlor and sitting room space for hospital work.” After the hospital opened in 1908, the Jewish population increased dramatically and so did the need for hospital beds and a more advanced facility. Due to an increase in immigration in the second half of the 1800s, Pittsburgh’s Jewish population began to steadily grow with dramatic increases in the 1880s that continued into the first quarter of the 20th century, as Jews fled from Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Hungary, Romania, and the Austria-Hungary Empire to escape pogroms and harsh economic conditions. The number of Jews living in Pittsburgh increased from a little more than 2,000 in 1881 to 25,000 by 1907, on the way to 53,000 in 1927. A campaign to raise funds for a new hospital began in 1924. Five years and $2.5 million later, the new Montefiore Hospital opened on Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood in 1929, where it currently sits today.
Annie Jacobs Davis led efforts to raise money during both campaigns while simultaneously taking care of her own children and running a household. During her second campaign, she raised upwards of $875,000. According to her son, “People would give her money when they wouldn’t give money to anybody else because they trusted her integrity implicitly.”
Annie faced several personal hardships following the establishment of Montefiore Hospital. Her husband Barnett died of a heart attack in 1913, her daughter Frieda died during the 1918 influenza pandemic, and her son Max died after having surgery to remove his gall bladder in 1924. After Max’s death, Annie went on a trip to Israel with her daughter Sarah as a form of therapy, and while there she gave her money away to those who were less fortunate. While recalling her life’s work in her memoir, Annie wrote, “How can I say in this small way of what I have done, for each and every one of the things I mention has a story of years of effort and work. Some of my private cases I have worked on for four, five and ten years. I am happy to say that all of my work brought happy results.” She also memorialized her loved ones through donations to Congregation B’nai Israel in East Liberty, where the family moved around 1912. In 1925, Annie created Mrs. Frieda Davis Seegman and Max Davis Memorial Fund to be used for Jewish educational purposes, and a couple of years later in 1927, she donated a Torah scroll in honor of her daughter Frieda. In 1953, Congregation B’nai Israel dedicated the newly built community center and named the assembly hall the Mrs. Barnett Davis Assembly Hall.
“Mother was a very charismatic woman. People were naturally attracted to her. First, because it was quite evident that there was no evil in her and there was no duplicity in her, and second because she had that indefinable quality. Now that group of women (The Ladies Hospital Aid Society), there must have been over a thousand of them, 1200 or 1500 that held onto mother’s every word. What she said seemed to be law. At any rate, they were extremely loyal to her. Now, their children and their children’s children are still loyal to this day to mother.”
Catelyn Coccuzi is an archivist with the Rauh Jewish Archives.
1 National Council of Jewish Women, Pittsburgh Section Records, 1894-2011, AIS.1964.40, Archives & Special Collections, University of Pittsburgh Library System.
3 Dr. S.M. MeLamed, “The Mother of Montefiore: Her Story of the Hospital,” Jewish Criterion, July 12, 1929. Accessed March 26, 2020, Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries.
4 Jo Rifkin, ” Community History: Jewish Pittsburgh History marked by highs, lows, splits and commitment,” Jewish Criterion, Fall 1991.
5 National Council of Jewish Women, Pittsburgh Section Records, 1894-2011, AIS.1964.40, Archives & Special Collections, University of Pittsburgh Library System
7 Papers of Annie Jacobs Davis, 1865-c1940, MSS #269, Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives, Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center
8 National Council of Jewish Women, Pittsburgh Section Records, 1894-2011, AIS.1964.40, Archives & Special Collections, University of Pittsburgh Library System