The Legacy of Dr. Louis Allard began in Laurel

By 
Rosalyn Visser Of The Outlook Staff
Thursday, May 19, 2022
Dr. Louis W. Allard had a long, storied career as a doctor and surgeon. Photo courtesy of the Wester Heritage Center, Billings Public Library Collection.

Dr. Louis W. Allard had a long, storied career as a doctor and surgeon. Photo courtesy of the Wester Heritage Center, Billings Public Library Collection.

Young polio victims are shown attending the Saint Vincent Hospital School in 1923. Photo courtesy of the Wester Heritage Center, Billings Public Library Collection

Young polio victims are shown attending the Saint Vincent Hospital School in 1923. Photo courtesy of the Wester Heritage Center, Billings Public Library Collection

Ernest Hemingway spent several weeks healing his broken arm at Saint Vincent Hospital. Hospital. Photo courtesy of the Western Heritage Center and St. Vincent Healthcare.

Ernest Hemingway spent several weeks healing his broken arm at Saint Vincent Hospital. Hospital. Photo courtesy of the Western Heritage Center and St. Vincent Healthcare.

A hundred years ago, cities across Montana faced a very different outbreak than what we face today—polio. The polio epidemic in the early 1900s hit Billings particularly hard, as Billings had about half of the state’s cases. While the outbreak killed fewer people than injuries or cancer, polio was terrifying because it was mostly afflicting children, was extremely contagious, and the causes were unclear. Moreover, polio was debilitating, leaving some children paralyzed, having difficulty breathing, or reliant on an iron lung to survive.

While there was not a vaccine for poliovirus until 1955, doctors across the nation created treatments to help people with polio. One such hero who emerged for Montana during the 1916 Billings Polio Crisis was Dr. Louis W. Allard.

The name Allard may be familiar as the Allards are a prominent Laurel founding family, and Louis Allard was born and raised outside of Laurel on a sheep farm. Dr. Allard furthered his family’s legacy with his incredible medical work and dedication to the growth of Saint Vincent Hospital. Dr. Allard’s story is recorded in Sue Hart’s The Call To Care, 1898-1998: Saint Vincent Hospital and Health Center: The First 100 Years of Service.

Allard’s medical journey began after he attended college in Bozeman. He left for medical school at the University of Wisconsin and finished his training in Chicago, where he was working under some of the nation’s top orthopedic doctors. Instead of remaining to practice in a big city, Dr. Allard returned home to Montana in 1914 and opened his own practice in Billings, and later Butte, where he specialized in orthopedics.

As the tensions of WWI rose and troops were assembled, medical personnel were being encouraged to enlist or were drafted. Dr. Allard was considering joining the military when city and state officials convinced him to remain in the community and continue serving as City and County Physician. Often Dr. Allard would attend to patients in outlying areas such as Laurel and Worden in his mornings and then would return to Billings for his later appointments. As the Yellowstone County Physician, Allard sent many of his rural patients to Saint Vincent Hospital, which forged the relationship between Dr. Allard and the hospital Sisters.

In 1916, when a major wave of the polio epidemic hit Billings, Dr. Allard worked closely with the nursing supervisor, Sister Mary Arcadia Lea, to treat and advocate for the kids. Allard dedicated himself to caring for children with polio, and for families who could not afford treatments or surgeries, they only charged $25 for a month of care.

The polio patients came to be known as “Allards kids,” and were filling a large portion of the hospital. Dr. Allard and Sister Mary were able to persuade the hospital administration to open a separate wing for the care of patients with polio. In addition, Saint Vincent Hospital had a school so Allard’s kids could continue their education.

The children’s journey to rehabilitation resulted in long term treatments in the hospital including physical therapy and sometimes surgery. Summers were challenging in the hospital due to the unbearable heat, especially for the kids who were in casts or braces. One solution the sisters and Allard planned and organized was a secluded summer camp that enabled patients to leave the hospital. The camp, just outside of Red Lodge, was finished in under two years and served as a welcome retreat for the children.

In addition to his fight against the polio epidemic and work developing various hospitals, Dr. Allard treated others with various ailments. Among them were high profile patients such as artist Will James and author Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway, who was in Montana finishing his novel Death in the Afternoon, broke his arm as a result of a car accident. When he arrived at the hospital, he was unrecognized until Dr. Allard identified him as the famous author. Hemingway’s arm did not heal properly, so Dr. Allard had to surgically reset the bone, employing kangaroo tendons to stabilize his arm! Hemingway’s seven week stay at Saint Vincent Hospital inspired his short story The Gambler, The Nun, and The Radio.

Dr. Allard was no doubt essential to Yellowstone County and dedicated his life to service. All of Dr. Allard’s amazing work secured him multiple awards, including being bestowed the honor of Knight of the Order of St. Gregory, as ordered by Pope Pius XI.

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