Bellevue, the storied history of America's oldest public hospital

Bellevue, America's oldest public hospital

"Bellevue, in many ways, is an eerie place," said Pulitzer Prize-winner David Oshinksy, the author of a book about the storied New York City hospital.  "It's an eerie place because the ghosts are everywhere. This is a hospital that goes back three centuries. Every immigrant group has come through with every imaginable disease."

If you want to tell the story of America through its chronology of health crises, then there's no better setting than Bellevue Hospital.  

"The Irish come first, and they allegedly bring with them cholera and typhus," Oshinsky said. "Then the Germans and the Jews come, and tuberculosis became the big disease."

Oshinsky showed correspondent Mo Rocca a tuberculosis balcony at the famous Bellevue TB wards. "The belief was that fresh air would help. You would have dozens and dozens of people out at one time; they'd be here in the snow."

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Founded in the 1730s, Bellevue is America's oldest public hospital. CBS News

And in the 1980s Bellevue was ground zero during the AIDS epidemic. "More patients with AIDS come to Bellevue and more patients with AIDS die at Bellevue Hospital," he said. "And the treatment of AIDS patients is a story of struggle and heroism and eventually helping to turn a deadly disease into a treatable one."

With COVID-19 patients expected to fill the city's hospitals, Bellevue and its doctors will once again be on the front lines. That Bellevue has confronted so many crises isn't surprising. Founded in the 1730s, it's America's oldest public hospital, meaning all are welcome, regardless of condition or ability to pay.  

Oshinsky said, "Bellevue turns no one away. I mean, that has always been the mantra of Bellevue Hospital. And they come to Bellevue knowing that they will be treated, and they will be welcomed."

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And it's because Bellevue has always taken in the worst of the worst cases that it's drawn the best of the best in medicine. Consider the case of Alexander Anderson, Bellevue's first doctor.

"In the six weeks of the great yellow fever epidemic, Alexander Anderson lost his son to yellow fever, his wife to yellow fever, his mother and father and brother to yellow fever," Oshinsky said. "And he largely stayed the course. Because he believed it was God's will that he help these people.  And to me, Alexander Anderson is really not only Bellevue's first doctor, but he sets down the notion and the ethos of compassion."

Dr. Susan Cohen, the current director of palliative care at Bellevue, carries on that tradition. "We see every emotion, every facet of the human condition that you can imagine," she said. "And it's humbling."

As is the scale of the place. "There's a diner, there's a school, there's a court, there's a jail, there's a hospital. Everything is in the walls of Bellevue," said Cohen.

Bellevue was the first hospital to have a civilian ambulance corps. "They were light. They were horse-driven. They could move at incredible speed," said Oshinsky.

Bellevue's story can also be told through a remarkable run of medical milestones: It had the first nursing school, the first departments of forensics and pediatrics, the first maternity ward.

And it was on the cutting edge of circumcision. "Lewis Sayre really did the first medical circumcisions," said Oshinsky. "These were obscure religious rituals until this time."

Yet for all its breakthroughs, Bellevue became infamous for its psychiatric wing, the very name a byword for insanity. That's because of one woman: "Nellie Bly was probably the great daredevil female reporter," said Oshinsky. "She was the one, who when Jules Verne wrote 'Around the World in 80 Days,' Nellie Bly went around the world in 76 days!"

Bly was writing for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World when she went undercover in 1887 to report on the city's psychiatric hospitals.  "Nellie Bly made like she was crazy. She basically had a fake breakdown. The judge sent her to Bellevue Hospital," said Oshinsky.

From there she was sent to a state mental hospital on Blackwell's Island, where the treatment she witnessed was barbaric, chronicled in "Ten Days in a Madhouse," a sensational exposé that became a best-selling book.

"And once that comes out," said Oshinsky, "Bellevue, in the public mind, is really linked almost forever with insanity and mental illness."

Bellevue became a punchline, as in "The Honeymooners." ["And I'm calling Bellevue, 'cuz you're nuts!"] And at the movies, Bellevue was where Kris Kringle was sent in "Miracle on 34th Street."

A host of real-life writers and artists spent time in the hospital's psych ward, including O. Henry, Eugene O'Neill, Norman Mailer, and composer Stephen Foster. Blues legend Lead Belly even wrote a song about his stay at the hospital:

Lead Belly - "Been So Long (Bellevue Hospital Blues)" by SmithsonianFolkwaysRecordings on YouTube

And singer John Lennon was brought here after he was shot, along with his assassin. Oshinsky said, "In one of the great ironies of this story¸ Mark Chapman was being examined by psychiatrists probably 100 feet away from where John Lennon's body was in the morgue."

But it was the 1989 murder at Bellevue of Dr. Kathryn Hinnant that shook the institution to its core.

"A homeless man, who had been living illegally in Bellevue Hospital, killed a pregnant pathologist in her office," said Oshinsky. "And it caused an absolute furor. And Bellevue really had to decide at that moment, are we a hospital that provides emergency services to everybody, or are we a bus station?"

In the end, security was ramped up, and Bellevue did not abandon its mission as a public hospital.

Dr. Susan Cohen, who has been at the hospital for 12 years, told Rocca, "I love the people. I love the patients. And I love the mission. You have to wanna be here to be here. If it's not the right fit for you, you shouldn't be here."

Rocca asked Oshinsky, "Bellevue remains important because …?"

"It is the bellwether," he replied. "It is the place that takes in people who can often go nowhere else. And if they have a medical issue, it will be taken care of with great care and compassion."

      
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Story produced by Amol Mhatre. Editor: David Bhagat.