Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital
By David Oshinsky
387 pages, $30
Pulitzer Prize winner David Oshinsky is out with the remarkable story of Bellevue Hospital on New York City’s East Side. It’s the place where we usually think only the poor are taken for treatment. What a mistake.
It’s had its share, Oshinsky tells us, of mangled crime victims, lunatics and derelicts, along with celebrities like Lead Belly, Norman Mailer, and John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman.
Oshinsky, professor of history at NYU and director of the Division of Medical Humanities at the NYU Langone Medical Center, earlier won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2006 for “Polio: An American Story.”
How often we’ve seen NYC tabloids headline, “Pneumonia victim to Bellevue,” or “AIDS ward set up at Bellevue,” or the more personal “Delmore Schwartz handcuffed to Bellevue after strangling hostile book reviewer.” It all happened there and more over three centuries.
The movies loved the place. Billy Wilder’s “Lost Weekend,” the 1945 Academy Award winner for best picture took place there. The hospital did a cameo in “Miracle on 34th Street,” when Kris Kringle was taken there for observation. And its morgue was featured in “The Godfather.”
“A visitor to Bellevue in any era might see much the same thing: a well-schooled physician treating a charity patient against a background of bleakness and disrepair. It’s a scene that dates back to the 1700s when a prominent doctor, accompanied by a student apprentice or two, would wind his way through the decrepit, foul-smelling almshouse sick wards …”
That could have been David Hosack, the leading physician for New York City’s elite in the early 1800s, treating the sick at the almshouse that opened in 1736 with a single-room infirmary.
A few of the chapter titles give you a sense of the sweep of the story. The great epidemic, a typhus outbreak in the early 1800s, is discussed at length. Other chapters include “Teaching Medicine,” “A Hospital in War,” “Germ Theory,” “The Mad-House,” “Cause of Death,” “AIDS,” “Sandy” and “Rebirth.”
Oshinsky, who writes eruditely and easily at the same time – a difficult combination - tells us that Bellevue was the first hospital to have a maternity ward, an emergency pavilion, a medical school onsite, an ambulance corps, a medical photography department and a nursing school for women.
Not only that, Bellevue’s doctors read like a “Who’s Who” in American medical history. Begin with William Welch, the father of modern pathology in America. Add William Halsted, the 19th century’s most innovative surgeon. Then Hermann Biggs, a pioneer in prevention of tuberculosis’, Walter Reed and William Gorgas, who defeated yellow fever; William Hallock Park, who brought the life-saving diphtheria antitoxin the America; the list goes on. The hospital coped with the influenza crisis of 1918–19.
After World War II, Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurance policies were written into employment contracts. This gave the working class a chance to go to struggling voluntary hospitals that Bellevue couldn’t match, despite its great staff.
Oshinsky writes, “Why put up with the indignities of peeling paint, miserable food, crowded wards and perhaps a stabbing victim in the next bed, when a semiprivate room in a well-appointed private facility could be had?”
When the benefits in the 1960s of Medicare and Medicaid, which funneled billions of tax dollars into the health care sector, Bellevue took another reputation loss. Oshinsky tells us that in the 1970s, a further series of problems almost closed the hospital. Crime and drug addiction flourished at the facility against a backdrop of white flight, a declining tax base, and the threat of municipal bankruptcy.
But guess what? Oshinsky reminds us of a familiar truth. People with no other place to go needed Bellevue. When AIDS showed up in the 1980s, Bellevue became ground zero for an epidemic targeting those on the margins of public concern, gay men and intravenous drug users.
The hospital stayed alive because it was a buttress against unforeseen crises that periodically arise, like the successful treatment of New York’s lone Ebola victim in 2014. It remains a vital safety net, a place of caring and a place of last resort, our author tells us.
If I got hit by a car near Rock Center, where I used to work, or got clipped by a taxi near the UN, where I later worked, I wouldn’t hesitate to say, “Take me to Bellevue.”
Michael D. Langan is a frequent book review for The Buffalo News.