Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital

Oshinsky, David

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Annotated by:
Redel-Traub, MD, Gabriel
  • Date of entry: Feb-15-2017
  • Last revised: May-08-2017


“Few hospitals are more deeply embedded in our popular culture” than Bellevue, David Oshinsky writes in the introduction to his new book Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America's Most Storied Hospital.  What follows, however, is not just an account of the (in)famous hospital, but a history of New York City, of disease and medicine and of America itself. Thus, the pages of Bellevue take us from Revolutionary War to Civil War, from Miasma Theory to Germ Theory, from the Spanish flu epidemic to the AIDS epidemic and from the disaster of 9/11 to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Along the way, the reader is introduced to giants of the medical and political world, many of whom were connected intimately to the hospital.  In Oshinsky’s telling, Bellevue is a hospital of firsts. The hospital with the first ambulance corps, first in-hospital medical school, first pathology lab. It is—at the same time—a hospital rooted in tradition. It is startling in reading Bellevue, for example, to realize that halfway through the book, the doctors who are being celebrated as central to the hospital’s longevity still subscribed to Miasma theory and could do little more for their patients than bleed them and give them alcohol.  Bellevue is also—and in Oshinsky’s eyes this seems most important—a hospital of immigrants. It was and is, a hospital where those for whom no one else would care could come, where no one would be turned away. Over the years, this has meant that Bellevue has opened its doors to Irish immigrants who were thought to be causing the Typhus epidemic, to Jews who were thought to be causing tuberculosis outbreaks and to homosexuals who were thought to be causing the AIDS epidemic. The demographic of patients who come to Bellevue has changed drastically throughout its history, but the underlying ethos of the hospital has been unwavering. 


Bellevue is a celebration of a hospital which has occupied a central place in the American medical tradition. Nonetheless, Oshinsky is careful to scrutinize, where necessary, the individuals that have been intimately a part of Bellevue’s legacy. The chapter on Dr. Lauretta Bender is particularly deft. Dr. Bender infamously used electroshock therapy on children—one of the reasons Bellevue has been thought of mainly as a “madhouse” in popular culture. She is also, however, thought by many to be the mother of modern psychiatry. Oshinsky, ever the historian, does not make a final judgment on her tangled legacy, but provides a nuanced look at both sides of the issue. Oshinsky’s affection for Bellevue as an institution, for its physicians and for its hallowed place in the history of New York City shines throughout making the book both exciting and relevant for the modern reader.         



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