The milestones of the modern city are not always measured in building heights or population numbers: sometimes they are recorded in epidemics and how the city confronts these crises of public health. For New York City, where urban density and the diseases borne by international travel have often collided, with catastrophic results, this has meant a history of fighting varied and deadly human pathogens: from the yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s to battles against cholera, typhus, puerperal fever, influenza, tuberculosis, and AIDS. Since its founding in 1736, New York’s Bellevue Hospital has been at the center of all these struggles. In Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital, David Oshinsky, a professor of history at New York University and the director of the Division of Medical Humanities at NYU’s Langone Medical Center, applies his talent for storytelling—he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for his book Polio: An American Story—along with a taste for the macabre to deliver a remarkably compelling history of New York as seen through one medical establishment.
“Few hospitals are more deeply embedded in our popular culture,” Oshinsky writes of Bellevue. “The flagship institution of America’s largest city, where free hospital care is provided to the ‘medically indigent’ as a right, not a privilege,” Bellevue continues to stand, “for all its troubles, as a vital safety net, a place of caring and a place of last resort.” The “three centuries” of the subtitle describes not just Bellevue’s history but that of the institutions of public health as a whole. In a city where an outcry over the “body snatching” of cadavers by medical students led to the deadly “doctors riot” of 1788, and where the upper classes long sought refuge from their infirmities at home rather than in a hospital, Bellevue grew out of a pest-house, or ward for those who were often terminally ill, established in what was then New Amsterdam. “Citing records from the West India Company, when the Dutch ruled Manhattan Island,” writes Oshinsky, Bellevue’s existence can be traced to “a small infirmary built in the 1660s for soldiers overcome by ‘bad smells and filth.’”
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