New York Hospital was the oldest hospital in New York City, and the second oldest hospital in the United States, second only to Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, founded in 1751. The history of New York Hospital is intimately related to the history of New York City. At the first graduation exercises of the medical school of King's College, held in Trinity Church in 1769, Dr. Samuel Bard, Professor of the Practice of Medicine, established the need for a "Public Hospital for the Reception of the Poor Sick of this Government and City”. He stressed the triple missions of patient care, research and teaching, which such an institution should fulfill. Within a day, the Governor of the Province, Sir Henry Moore, started a fund. In 1771, King George III of England granted a royal charter to establish "The Society of the New York Hospital in the City of New York in America" and a Board of Governors. The initiative for forming a hospital came from a growing medical community that included Dr. Bard, as well as Drs. Peter Middleton and John Jones. The financial and moral support came from the outstanding citizens of the community, who were largely merchants. The small hospital was erected on a plot of land along the west side of Broadway, between what is presently Worth Street and Duane Streets. It was set back about 90 feet from Broadway, allowing considerable space on all sides for lawn and future buildings.
A serious fire, and the Revolutionary War, delayed the opening of the Hospital until 1791, just in time to treat patients during the yellow fever epidemic. In the interim, the building was used as barracks for Hessian and British soldiers, as a laboratory for teaching anatomy to medical students, and as a military hospital. The state legislature met there on two occasions. The area was so secluded that it became a favorite place for duels. Even in those days, there was almost constant need to renovate, expand and modernize. The small two-storied, H-shaped building soon expanded to three stories; later, new buildings were built on the north and south sides. Gas illumination came in 1838, and steam heat in 1844.
Medical care at the hospital was the best available. It included surgery, medications, bloodletting and purging. The physicians were trained in Europe, or at one of the medical schools in New York City. The most distinguished of the early surgeons was Dr. Valentine Mott, a pioneer in vascular surgery. Among the physicians, Dr. David Hosack was outstanding. Both Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were his patients. Attending Surgeon Dr. Valentine Seaman brought a vaccination against smallpox to New York Hospital in 1799, only one year after Edward Jenner published his first successful experiments. New York Hospital's pharmacopoeia was published in 1816, four years before the publication of the United States Pharmacopoeia. This caused considerable concern among the attending physicians, about the potential abridgement of the physician's right to prescribe.
From the start, some beds had been devoted to psychiatric patients. Later, one of the new buildings was used for the Lunatic Asylum. In 1818, Dr. William Handy of New York Hospital reported on his study of treatment of the insane, presenting a firm rejection of the conventional harsh management. His report on the humane treatment of the insane stimulated a decision to improve the psychiatric facilities. In 1821, the psychiatric patients moved to the newly completed Bloomingdale Asylum, on 77 acres of land that are now occupied by Columbia University at 116th Street and Broadway. Dr. Pliny Earle worked there, applying scientific methods to evaluate the effects of treatment and assure moral treatment of patients.
By 1890, there was considerable pressure to move Bloomingdale Asylum out of the city. As a result, a new Bloomingdale Hospital was built on a large plot in White Plains, New York, and was opened in 1894. The name was changed in 1936 to New York Hospital-Westchester Division.
Shortly after the Civil War, as the neighborhood of New York Hospital changed, plans were initiated to move the hospital to a more suitable area of the city. In the meantime, a satellite "House of Relief", with about two dozen beds and an ambulance service, was established in 1875 at 160 Chambers Street. In 1895, the House of Relief moved to 67-69 Hudson Street. It was discontinued in 1919.
The second New York Hospital, built on 15th and 16th Streets, opened in 1877. It was a modern hospital, considered to be the "last word" in architectural beauty and function. Much that had been learned from the old hospital was incorporated into the new building. Careful thought was given to the importance of environmental influences on the cause of disease. Cleanliness, good ventilation, and adequate heating were priorities. Even as early as 1855, Dr. John Watson had concluded, "under these conditions, patients suffer less from erysipelas and other depressing maladies."
Cornell University Medical College had used New York Hospital as a teaching facility for medical students since the college was founded in 1898, and the hospital always considered clinical education of medical students to be one of its principal objectives. There was no formal agreement between the medical college and the hospital until just before the First World War. In 1912 and 1913, stimulated by a gift of $6 million from George F. Baker and Colonel Oliver Hazard Payne, New York Hospital and Cornell University reached an agreement whereby the medical college would appoint half of the staff of the hospital and half of the beds would be used for teaching purposes. This association became even stronger when New York Hospital and Cornell University Medical College agreed in 1927 to build a large medical center to house both institutions. Faculty and staff would have joint appointments in the hospital and medical school. They chose the site between York Avenue and the East River, from East 68th to East 71st Streets, for construction of New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. Payne Whitney, nephew of Oliver Hazard Payne and the chief benefactor of New York Hospital, provided over $40 million for constructing the Center. A separate building was constructed to house the Payne Whitney Clinic for the Department of Psychiatry, in recognition of Payne Whitney's long-standing interest in psychiatry. The General Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation contributed $5 million to Cornell University Medical College for the joint venture, hoping for a permanent union. Dr. G. Canby Robinson had primary responsibility for developing and implementing the plans. The building complex, completed in 1932, won many architectural awards.
The "great white palace", modeled after the Pope's Palace in Avignon, is an imposing neogothic structure. For its time, it incorporated most of the latest ideas in providing excellent patient care, teaching, and research. Everything was under one roof or connected by an underground tunnel. The house staff quarters and the physicians' eating facilities were luxurious. In spite of severe financial difficulties related to the Great Depression, nothing was spared.
In order to maintain the high quality of medical care, many areas of the hospital were extensively renovated in later years. In 1962, the Connie M. Guion Building housing the Out-Patient Department was opened. The Phipps House (1955) and the Lawrence G. Payson House (1965) relieved the housing shortage for the staff. Other major construction included the C. V. Starr Pavilion for Ambulatory Care (1985), the Stitch Radiation Therapy Center that housed MRI equipment (1986), and the Helmsley Medical Tower (1989).
On April 8, 1997, Greenberg Pavilion, the fourth major building to house New York Hospital, was dedicated. The pavilion opened to patients in May 1997. Later that year, on December 31, New York Hospital completed a full assets merger with Presbyterian Hospital (founded in 1868) to form NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital - the university hospital of Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University, and College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University.
The above history was revised and adapted from "History of the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center," an article by Ralph Engle, Jr., M.D., that first appeared in the medical center's Directory of Alumni and Staff, 1980.