If its walls could talk, New York City's Bellevue would probably have more tales to tell than almost any other hospital. David Oshinsky treats readers to many in Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America's Most Storied Hospital, a sweeping, detailed history of this mighty institution, America's quintessential public hospital. And who better to tell its tales than Oshinsky, a history professor at New York University whose Polio: An American Story won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize?
The list of famous Bellevue patients goes on and on. Songwriter Stephen Foster died in poverty there in 1863. Francis Ford Coppola filmed scenes of The Godfather in its morgue. Norman Mailer was committed there after stabbing his wife during a drunken rage. Both Mark David Chapman and John Lennon were brought to Bellevue after the music icon's assassination.
Oshinsky charts Bellevue's beginnings as one of America's earliest hospitals (and possibly its first, depending on definitions), whose origins can be traced back to a small infirmary built in the 1660s when the Dutch ruled Manhattan Island. Another infirmary opened on the site in 1736, which grew and grew, ultimately becoming the state-of-the-art facility it is today, with its world-renowned emergency service and trauma center. The early chapters of Bellevue are a fascinating look at not only the hospital, but the history of early medicine, when yellow fever raged and doctors blamed not mosquitoes, but miasma―bad air from decaying matter trapped in overhead clouds.
In the early 1800s, the author writes, Bellevue "reassembled a poorhouse with a vaguely medical bent," because those with means were generally treated at home and few doctors earned medical degrees. Things certainly changed, as Bellevue Medical College opened its doors in April 1861, just a day before the Civil War began.
Continued growth has meant constant challenges as well as triumphs: electric shock therapies beginning in the 1940s, with some patients as young as 4 years old; groundbreaking cardiopulmonary research; scores of AIDS patients treated at the epidemic's height; the unimaginable tragedy of Dr. Kathryn Hinnant in 1989, stabbed and killed by a homeless cocaine addict who had secretly been living in the hospital, posing as a doctor; the devastation from Hurricane Sandy, when staff valiantly evacuated patients from the hospital and used a bucket brigade to get fuel to back up generators; the successful treatment of a Doctors Without Borders patient suffering from Ebola in 2014.
As one Bellevue ER doctor so aptly observed, "This is war zone medicine. You'll never go anywhere in the world and see something we haven't seen here."