Oshinsky, the Pulitzer Prize winner for “Polio: An American Story,” tells the fascinating history of America’s most famous hospital
‘Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital’
by David Oshinsky
Doubleday, 400 pages. $30
Bellevue Hospital, located on Manhattan’s East Side, can trace its history to the 1660s, when the Dutch built an almshouse with a small infirmary “for soldiers overcome by ‘bad smells and filth.’ ”
About 70 years later, with New Amsterdam now New York, the Brits constructed a sturdier, two-story brick and wood structure that was part prison with a “room for the sick and insane.”
And in 1795, the city leased (and later purchased) the Bel-vue Estate, to serve as a location for a “hospital for the accommodation and relief of such persons afflicted with contagious distempers” — meaning yellow fever.
As David Oshinsky points out in his comprehensive, fascinating and informative book, “Bellevue,” from these humble beginnings grew a “mighty oak.”
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Humble beginnings is putting it mildly. The reason early infirmaries were attached to almshouses is that people with money had no reason to go to hospitals. “What could be done there could be done more safely and comfortably at home. Lacking anesthesia, antisepsis and X-rays, among other modern essentials, the hospital resembled a poorhouse with a vaguely medical bent.”
There was no need for special equipment as it was common knowledge that since diseases were spread by toxic clouds, “bleeding and purging [were] among the better methods for dealing with” disease.
And of course back then doctors made house calls — “frequently enough to oversee the progress of a case, but not so frequently as to give the impression one was padding the bill.”
By and large, American medical professionals were slow to accept change, including simple steps such as washing hands before moving from patient to patient. Most doctors who’d heard a Philadelphia address about germ theory by Englishman Joseph Lister were bewildered “that anyone should listen to an Englishman spouting the theories of a Frenchman [Louis Pasteur] about the dangers of particles too small for anyone to see.”
Whenever there was progress, however, Bellevue was usually at the forefront. It was the first American hospital to have a maternity ward, an emergency department, to form an ambulance corps, to have a women’s nursing school, a pathology lab. Its faculty and graduates from affiliated medical schools include Walter Reed, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Two of its doctors won the 1956 Nobel Prize.
More than science, however, it was a beacon of hope to the millions of immigrants who came to the U.S. through New York at a time when other hospitals turned away seriously ill patients without financial resources.
Even to this day, as it demonstrated once again during the AIDS epidemic, Bellevue “was the place where doctors went the extra mile … to serve the most vulnerable and despised patients.”
Of course, Bellevue is inexorably tied to its reputation as a mental hospital. An 1887 “exposé” written by Nellie Bly — “Ten Days in a Mad-House” — for the New York World made the hospital “synonymous with bedlam.” But, in fact, the hospital came off less as brutal than clueless.
Faking insanity, she was examined by four doctors who did not detect the ruse. “I felt sure there was no doctor who could tell whether people were insane or not.”
Oshinsky won a Pulitzer Prize for “Polio: An American Story,” and this book is in that excellent tradition: a grand, potentially complicated subject, extensively researched, presented in an anecdote-filled, readable manner. And, apparently, he held onto his sanity in the process.