The People's Institute was organized in 1904 as a result of the investigations of Valentine Prichard, supervisor of the Portland Public School kindergartens and principal of a training school for kindergarten teachers. In 1902, Miss Prichard gave a report to Dr. Edgar P. Hill, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, and to Caroline Ladd, wife of Portland magnate, William S. Ladd, and their daughter, Helen Ladd Corbett, who was married to the son of another prominent Portland entrepreneur, Henry W. Corbett. Miss Prichard and a staff of workers visited homes to establish the needs of the women and children and to decide what could be done to help them. The report described the deplorable conditions of the women and children in north Portland. According to Prichard, they were unable to provide even the barest necessities for their children. Single mothers and their offspring lived in dark, unkempt rooming houses and tenements. Children were surrounded by immorality and often turned to crime, growing up idle and becoming a menace to society.
As a result, the Ladd family donated land at Fourth and Burnside Streets to construct a building for the People's Institute. The first floor housed the Men's Resort, a mission that had already been established by the church, while the second floor housed services for women and children. Caroline Corbett was appointed to form a club to support the effort, and Miss Prichard served as the Institute's organizer. The first meeting was held November 11, 1904; Prichard was voted in as supervisor, officers were elected, and the People's Institute Settlement Work was established. Dr. Hill, realizing that the work would need more than one church for support, opened membership to all women to aid the organization financially or through service.
The organizers of the People's Institute had three goals in mind: educational and industrial, humanitarian, and civic activity. Three centers formed at Fourth and Burnside (1904-1912), Albina, (1912-1918), and the South Portland Center at the First Presbyterian Church (1912-1915). Each center offered a kindergarten, sewing school, cooking school, Little Housekeepers Class, Stereoptician Sunday School, gymnasium, lectures for adults, manual training, Girl's Club, Boy's Club, Boy's Brigade, Boy's Printing Club, music, Dramatic Club, picture loan library, free baths, Mother's Club, and the Free Employment Bureau for Women. They also organized and supervised Portland's first public playgrounds in 1906, which they turned over to the Park Board in 1909.
In 1906, after the San Francisco earthquake and fire, the Institute gave clothes, food and medical care to the refugees arriving in Portland. Many doctors and nurses provided free services during the crisis, and some expressed interest in continuing free health work, including Drs. Noble Wiley Jones, Edna Timms and Gertrude French. In addition, the Free Employment Bureau for Women found that many women were not fit for employment due to poor health. They tried to interest the city and county in medical aid to the indigent but were, at first, hindered in their efforts. In 1907, the Executive Board of the People's Institute decided that the best way to help the poor was to help them to achieve health so that they could help themselves. Hence the Free Dispensary was formed with $30.00 provided by The Mother's Club. It was held in the Boy's Club room at Fourth and Burnside. Drs. French, Timms and George Whiteside offered their services as the first attending physicians, while many other doctors were willingly on call. The Visiting Nurse Association also joined the work.
In the spring of 1909, Dr. Clarence J. McCusker made a report to the University of Oregon Medical School about the Dispensary. The faculty responded by offering to affiliate with the clinic, providing equipment and services. Claire Kamm, Portland socialite and wife of another Portland industrialist, Jacob Kamm, and daughter of one of Oregon's first pioneers, William Gray, donated $1000 for the project, and five more rooms were opened on the first floor of the Men's Resort. The Medical School moved the necessary equipment to the new location and supplied a salary of $25.00 per month for an attendant. They requested additional support from the Board of Regents of the University of Oregon, and supplemental funds were acquired by subscription from the Arlington Club of Portland. Later, appropriations from the city and county were provided to meet growing expenses.
Drs. George B. Storey, Earnest Tucker and Kenneth A. J. Mackenzie, later made chief of staff, were appointed and authorized as trustees to sit with representatives of the People's Institute, the Visiting Nurse Association and the Men's Resort. On January 10, 1910, the first joint meeting of the organization was held, and fourteen physicians from the Medical School were assigned to staff the newly named, Portland Free Dispensary.
Before 1913, the Dispensary was not extensively used for teaching. But in 1913, attendance became compulsory for students. The Dispensary grew as a teaching center with Portland's finest and most capable physicians attending. It was moved to larger quarters on Fourth and Jefferson Streets in 1916, leaving the Institute's other projects housed at Fourth and Burnside and at the Lower Albina location. By 1921, the Dispensary was taken more under the auspices of the Medical School as an outpatient clinic. In 1923 a Free Baby Clinic was added and in 1926, under the direction of Drs. Noble Wiley Jones and T. Homer Coffen, new specialty clinics were established: a cardiac clinic directed by Coffen, an endocrine clinic run by Homer P. Rush, a diabetic clinic under the direction of J.R. Montague and Blair Holcomb, and a tuberculosis clinic coordinated by Ralph and Ray Matson and Marr Bisaillon.
The Dispensary quickly became overcrowded, and the location was extremely noisy, making examinations and accurate diagnoses difficult. But it was not until 1931 that a gift of $400,000 from the General Education Fund of New York made it possible to move the clinic to the Medical School campus on Marquam Hill, with the understanding that the Dispensary would turn over its work and financial resources to the Medical School. The four-story Outpatient Clinic was built, and the Dispensary medical services were transferred to these new and modern facilities, providing better services to patients and clinical opportunities for students.