An eye-opening history of the Manhattan hospital whose name is a byword for asylums everywhere.
If a person is taken to Bellevue, it’s never for good reasons. It is the hospital where sick homeless people, injured construction workers, and wounded cops and robbers come, scooped up from all over Manhattan, with elite wards for the elite and less-than-elite wards for the rest. In that sense, writes Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Oshinsky (History/New York Univ., and Medical Humanities/NYU School of Medicine; Polio: An American Story, 2010, etc.), “Bellevue is a microcosm of the city it serves.” It has made news for generations, in recent years for housing John Lennon’s assassin but also for having been the death place for Stephen Foster, O. Henry, and Lead Belly. That familiarity in the popular culture, notes the author, comes at a price, for though Bellevue has an ineradicable reputation, it is the definitive public hospital, treating rich and poor, attending to every conceivable malady, its doctors researching epidemics, ushering in public health reforms, and dispensing wisdom (“Work and keep out of the easy chair….Don’t eat too much meat”). From the ER to the Insane Pavilion (“Imagines Himself a Mosquito—Now an Inmate at Bellevue,” reads one headline of yore), Oshinsky’s account focuses on people. Anecdotal, its learning lightly worn, it makes a fine complement to the medical writing of Atul Gawande and Richard Selzer. It is also full of discoveries. For instance, it should come as no comfort to anyone that electroshock therapy, in which Bellevue was a pioneer, had its origins in the electrical stun guns used to stun pigs before they were slaughtered; it looks humane, Oshinsky suggests, only against other “therapies” such as lobotomy, and it was applied to thousands of patients, “many of them children.”
A lively contribution to popular histories of New York and its institutions, worthy of shelving alongside Robert Caro’s The Power Broker and Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace’s Gotham.