Who Invented The Hospital Bed?

If pressed to answer your question with one name, I’ll be an American chauvinist and answer Willis Dew Gatch. Dr. Gatch invented the modern 3-segment adjustable hospital bed in the first of the 20th century, though the history of the hospital bed is a little more complicated than that.

This is actually one of the hardest questions I’ve had to answer. You would think a question like “Who invented the hospital bed?” would be straightforward and might involve a 2-word or 3-word answer. But the history of the “hospital bed” isn’t as cut-and-dried as the history of the car, for example. It’s kind of like asking who invented some anonymous song from some long-ago century.

That’s because the hospital bed has been around in one form of another since the Middle Ages. The hospital bed began as a basic “litter” — a kind of rudimentary stretcher — back in the hidden mists of time. The litter is simply two poles of roughly equal length with a stretch sling or cloth spread over it, which allows a person to be carried on their back by two other upright people. Devices similar to litters were found in Pharaohnic Egypt and Ancient Rome, though they were designed to carry royals figures — not medical patients.

The public “Sedan chair” was a closed litter used in the city of Bath, England, to carry people to and from the baths that gave the city its name (or gave the word “bath” the connotation it has today). While the Sedan chair was used to carry healthy patrons around without exposing them to the elements after their time in the baths, it was also used to carry the sick and infirm.

But the litters and Sedan chairs of the past are more akin to stretchers than what we called hospital beds, so it won’t be until the 19th century until we find a mechanical bed used to comfort medical patients.

Who invented the hospital bed as a mechanical device?


There are different stories about who invented the mechanical hospital bed which could elevate feet or head from the rest of the body. One source indicates that hospital beds with side rails which could be raised or lowered appeared in England between 1815 and 1825. These hospital beds used a mechanical crank.

Gatch Bed and Adjustable Hospital Beds

But who invented the hospital bed as an adjustable device for both head and feet?

The “Gatch bed” is a bed which provides for the elevation of the head or feet (actually knees) of a patient due to mechanical (or later electrical) divided sections. The Gatch bed has three divided sub-sections with three independent elevations.

Dr. Willis D. Gatch (1878-1954), Chair of the Department of Surgery at the Indiana University School of Medicine, invented this Gatch bed or the adjustable hospital bed. So if you are looking for the inventor of the modern adjustable hospital bed, I would say Willis Gatch.

Medical Bed Device History

It’s hard to find a whole lot of easily accessed information on medical inventions, so I thought I would include a little bit on the invention of modern medical tools and a few of the basic techniques used to treat medical patients today worldwide. This is hardly complete and I avoided the later inventions and complicated 20th century medical practices, but it should give you a basic outline of the development of medical techniques from the 1500’s on. Hope this informs and entertains our readers.

  • 1536 – Bandages and dressings are used for the first time. Before, wounds were cauterized with hot oil. Ambroise Pare, the first modern surgeon, used this technique when he ran out of hot oil in the Siege of Turin.
  • 1683 – Antony van Leeuwenhoek records bacteria for the first time, after using a microscope to observe them.
  • 1816 – The stethoscope is invented by Rene Laennec.
  • 1846 – First general anaesthetic is used in surgery, by William Morton, a Boston dentist, who uses ether as a demonstration at Massachusetts General Hospital.
  • 1847 – Ignas Semmelweis, a Viennese obstetrician, begins disinfecting hands before surgery. The mortality rate goes from 18% to 2.5% in the hospital.
  • 1853 – The hypodermic syringe is invented by Charles Gabriel Pravas and Alexander Wood. The first injection is morphine.
  • 1857 – The “germ theory of disease” is put forward by Louis Pasteur. Before, people believed that organisms simply generated spontaneously, a process called abiogenesis.
  • 1866 – Johann Gregor Mendal discovers genes.
  • 1889 – Rubber gloves appear in the operating room. William Stewart Halsted, a surgeon and professor, introduces them at Johns Hopkins.
  • 1895 – X-rays introduced as a diagnosis technique by William Rontgen.
  • 1903 – The EEG is invented by Willem Einthoven. The electrocardiogram record the heart’s electrical impulses.