The Island's Surprising Role in Medical History

April 9, 2017

Today, the role of antiseptics and good hygiene in preventing the spread of disease and infection is considered a cornerstone of medicine. And it’s often taken for granted that patients with severe or chronic injuries should receive physical rehabilitation. What’s less known is that both these practices, and several other medical advancements, originated on Roosevelt Island. 


In a March 22 lecture at the Carter Burden Network Senior Center, Roosevelt Island Historical Society President Judith Berdy offered a fascinating look at how – long before Cornell set its sights on building a high-tech campus here – the Island already had a rich medical history filled with innovation and cutting-edge research. 


Island of Medicine


Blackwell Island was bought by the City through foreclosure on July 19, 1828, for about $50,000, approximately a year’s rent on Roosevelt Island today. It was quickly put to use when, in 1832, the penitentiary building was erected here. The forced labor of the steadily growing number of misdemeanor convicts and workhouse inmates ultimately yielded several medical buildings, including the Smallpox Hospital, which later became the New York Training School for Nurses; the notorious Lunatic Asylum, whose building was eventually taken over by Metropolitan Hospital; and Charity Hospital, which would later become City Hospital. Many of these buildings, along with new additions along the way, made important contributions to medical history. 


Charity / City Hospital


Charity Hospital was built in 1832, where Southpoint Park is today, but was rebuilt in 1858 after a fire destroyed it, and was renamed City Hospital. At the time, it was one of the largest hospitals in the nation, able to treat some 1,200 patients at once. 

City Hospital stood where Southpoint Park is today. All photos courtesy of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society.


It was here that Dr. Henry Jacques Garrigues fathered the concept of antiseptics and advocated for the creation of a separate maternity hospital. 


According to Berdy, Garrigues argued, “You can’t come from amputating someone’s leg who had gangrene and go deliver a baby with the same clothes on.” He was right. He opened the Maternity Hospital, purposely placing it completely apart from the other facilities. Garrigues insisted all doctors who arrived at the hospital wear clean clothes instead of a contaminated dirty uniform. After making these changes in care, the infant mortality rate went down by 90% in the hospital. 


Nestled among the green grass, trees, and flowers of the southern tip of the Island, the Maternity Hospital was a beautiful, large cottage that provided women and babies the sanctuary they needed before, during, and after labor — something that is all but lost in today’s production-line health care. 

Dr. Henry Jacques Garrigues (above) advocated for a separate Maternity Hospital to help prevent infections. 


In addition to being a major hospital, City Hospital was the first to house a dedicated pathological and bacterial laboratory, the Strecker Memorial Laboratory. Researchers conducted specimen research and autopsies there until well into the 1950s, after which it was abandoned. A small Romanesque style building, it was declared a historical landmark by the City, but it wasn’t until the 1990s, when the MTA decided to use it as a power conversion station, that it was restored completely. 


The City Hospital was open until 1957, when it was relocated to Queens as Elmhurst General Hospital. Unfortunately, despite being on the register of historic places, the hospital building was never granted landmark status and was demolished in 1994. The only remnants of the building are the two iron columns at the entrance to Southpoint Park and the Island-quarried stone that now forms the serpentine wall in the park. 


Smallpox Hospital


Erected in the 1850s, the Smallpox Hospital was the only one of its kind in New York. The building was located on the southern tip of the Island to create a safe zone between its contagious patients and those recovering in City Hospital a few hundred feet to the north. Some 13,000 people died in that hospital. 


However, as smallpox cases subsided and the vaccine became more widely distributed, the building was transformed into the New York Training School for Nurses in the 1870s – the third nursing facility of its kind in the United States. 


“Student nurses were very dignified young ladies,” said Berdy. “They came from very fine families and they spent three years [on the Island] learning nursing.” The Training School lasted into the 1950s. Today the building holds the distinction of being the only City landmark that is still a ruin. 


The Lunatic Asylum 


Before it fetched close to $6,000 for a two-bedroom apartment, the Octagon building was better known as the first municipal asylum in America. Over the years, the infamous Lunatic Asylum has captured the imagination of many. Charles Dickens, touring the United States in 1842, described it in the harshest of words, saying the range of lunacy and characters “were all, without disguise, in named ugliness and horror.”

 The former Lunatic Asylum


American journalist Nellie Bly wrote a series of articles about the horrific conditions and treatment of the female patients, after she went undercover in the women’s ward, eventually producing the fascinating book Ten Days in a Mad House. 


Metropolitan Hospital


In the 1890s, the State took over all mental institutions and relocated the asylum to Ward and Randalls Islands, and the building was then turned over to the Metropolitan Hospital. 


Daily life at Metropolitan Hospital, which was surrounded by gardens and water, was described as being almost utopic, even toward the end of its tenure on the Island. “Kids came here and stayed for months with various diseases and the staff became their family. It was different times,” a former doctor who worked at the hospital in the 1940s told Berdy. 

The Lunatic Asylumwas turned into Metropolitan Hospital. The spiral staircase still stands. 


Goldwater Hospital


Goldwater Hospital, which sat on the property now under development by Cornell Tech, was one of the nation’s first chronic-diseases hospital. Opened on the site of the former penitentiary in 1939, the hospital was built in a 1930s art deco style with four chevron-shaped wings and a length of five city blocks. It was Mayor LaGuardia, who was very passionate about health care, who supported and sponsored the founding of Goldwater. 


In its early days, the hospital was an innovative and cutting-edge medical center, and patron of a highly developed research wing used by both New York University and Columbia University. Acetaminophen, also known as Tylenol, was one of the several significant medications that was developed in the Goldwater research unit. (Back then it was acceptable to experiment on patients living in the hospitals. No informed consent was required; instead, good faith was the measure.) 


Rehabilitative medicine also originated in Goldwater. Dr. Howard A. Rusk, using his extensive experience working with wounded World War II soldiers, founded the basis for rehabilitation medicine within the walls of Goldwater. Today the world-renowned Rusk Institute is housed at the NYU Langone Medical Center. 


Coler Hospital


The last standing medical facility on the Island is the Coler Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, located on the northernmost part of Roosevelt Island. The hospital currently houses some 800 patients and offers short- and long-term rehabilitation, as well as elder-specialized nursing care.



Did You Know?


• When the Queensboro Bridge was built over the Island in 1909, it gave Islanders much needed access – thanks to a now-removed service elevator. According to Berdy, Island visitors took a trolley car (pictured right) over the bridge to the midpoint and then got off, walked over a ramp, and took an elevator down to get onto the Island. Ambulances came this way and even fire trucks.


 • A Convalescent Rehabilitation Center opened in 1937 and stood where Manhattan Park is today. It included seven long buildings with gardens and a central pond. It closed in 1942 and was converted into a venereal diseases treatment center. Later, the area was used for FDNY training. However, some of the trees that were on its grounds stand tall on Main Street today, shading the central park of Manhattan Park. 


• Original plans calling for the asylum to be more than double its size never materialized. The current Octagon dome was originally meant to be a corner dome off of the main structure.


• During summers in the early 20th century, New York was a breeding ground for contagious diseases. While the well-to-do could afford to flee to their country houses, the sick were housed in the several hospitals on Roosevelt Island. Metropolitan Hospital, which treated many with tuberculosis, used its fire escapes as terraces to allow its patients to enjoy some fresh air and escape from crowded conditions.


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