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6 Surprising Facts About The Historical, Storied, And Once-Feared Bellevue Hospital
America's first public hospital has quite the checkered history.
Bellevue Hospital, America’s first public hospital, is the source of inspiration for NBC’s new hospital drama “New Amsterdam,” premiering 9/25.
Bellevue’s legacy is a checkered one — since its founding in 1736, it earned quite a dark reputation for its psychiatric facilities. The population of people who used its mental health facilities peaked in 1955 at 90,000, and as recently as 1983, when its population was 23,000, the New York Times ran an article about its “tales of despair,” with one physician calling it a “wastebasket for the rest of society.”
New York’s first “almshouse” was housed in a building on the common ground that is now City Hall Park. Its first infirmary started out with six beds, moving to the Belle Vue mansion in 1798 during the yellow fever years.
Bellevue Hospital Center, located at 30th and 1st in New York City, is housed in an imposing brick building and is affiliated with NYU School of Medicine.
Here are six fascinating facts about Bellevue Hospital you need to know before watching “New Amsterdam”:
1. The first physician was a famous engraver
In an interview with Thrillist, David Oshinsky talked about Alexander Anderson, “the greatest engraver of the early 19th century” whose parents wanted him to to medicine — so he became a physician at “this godforsaken isolated pesthouse” where he bled and purged yellow fever patients, not knowing what else to do with them.
Oshinsky is the author of “Bellevue: Three Centuries Of Medicine And Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital.”
The saddest part of this? There were several yellow fever epidemics, and Anderson lost his son, father, and brother, to yellow fever. His wife and mother died shortly after.
These tragedies caused Anderson to turn away from the medical profession, and to engraving.
Anderson, on the other hand, lived until the grand old age of 95.
His tombstone in Brooklyn dubs him “America’s First Illustrator” and “The Father of American Wood Engraving.”
2. One of the country’s first ambulances started here
The second hospital-based ambulance service in the country started at Bellevue — horse-drawn carriages replete with medical equipment, morphine and brandy, were founded by a former surgeon in the Union Army in 1869. This was just a few years after the Commercial Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, started the nation’s very first.
The Bellevue service proved to be very popular and in 1870, the ambulances attended 1401 emergency calls routed through the police.
3. The circus came to visit once a year
Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus shut down their 146 years of circus theatrics last year. Just a few decades before, they were a known staple in the courtyard of Bellevue, where they would annually regale patients of Bellevue with an elephant- and clown-studded show.
Patients would watch the show from balconies from 1908 to the 1960s.
The New York Times apparently called a 1912 performance a “picturesque and unusual spectacle” and noted that the patients were occupied by nurses and doctors — “and crowds of little children—some touched by the great white plague, some little cripples, and some little convalescents.”
The ritual, whose audience had reached the thousands mark, ended in 1967 when Bellevue had to destroy the balconies in favor of construction, reports Ephemeral New York.
4. The hospital was the site of many medical triumphs
From opening the first maternity ward in 1799 to establishing the world’s first sanitary code in 1867, Bellevue was a pioneer in medicine. Physicians of the city institution supported a bill allowing legal dissection of cadavers, performed the first ligation of the femoral artery for an aneurysm, and ten years later, the innominate artery, and were the first to report that tuberculosis was, in fact, a preventable disease. These are just a few of many “firsts.”
5. Bellevue’s name would strike fear in the hearts of New Yorkers — for good reason
For all its medical pioneering ways, Bellevue was once the New York version of Bedlam.
Describing the institution’s “dark sway” over New York City, Atlas Obscura calls it “degradation, foulness, and death” — the one place you didn’t want to go, because you probably wouldn’t come back. Atlas Obscura reports that around half of amputations in 1876 were fatal because of “poison in the walls.” Harpers New Monthly Magazine, in 1879, reportedly wrote that Bellevue, saved for the “dregs of society” had wards filled with “wasted souls drifting through the agonies of disease toward unpitied and unremembered deaths.”
6. Bellevue treated presidents, murderers, celebrities, and the poor alike
Bellevue is hospital of the people, and still treats every patient at its door.
This means that it has treated paupers and presidents alike.
The hospital has housed celebrated writers including Allen Ginsberg, Eugene O’Neill, and William Burroughs — and murderous criminals like John Lennon’s killer Mark David Chapman and Norman Mailer.
President James Garfield’s non-fatal gunshot wounds were infected by physicians who didn’t believe in germs, notes historian Oshinsky in an interview with NPR. Years later, they treated Grover Cleveland for a cancerous growth in his mouth — on a yacht, because he didn’t want to “alert his critics.”
[Photo: Getty Images /Museum of the City of New York/Byron Collection, NBC]