Goldwater Memorial’s Legacy of Innovation

October 13, 2017

Long before Cornell Tech’s campus stood at the southern end of Roosevelt Island, serving as a beacon for innovation and emerging technology, the site was a source for cutting-edge research of another type. Goldwater Memorial Hospital, the ten-acre facility that was torn down to make way for Cornell Tech, once housed a permanent research division that led pioneering studies in chronic diseases and, later, provided important resources for the U.S. government’s War Time Program in medical research and technology. 


From the Collection of the Public Design Commission of the City of New York. 


From Quarantine to Research


In the decades after the first World War, the demand for long-term medical care began to rise. People were living longer, and a growing aging population meant more people were living with chronic diseases, many of which lacked good treatment options. Demand for medical research was further compounded by the rise in tropical diseases presenting in patients who had fought in the first World War.


In 1935, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia declared the Island a prime location to build the City’s most modern medical institution. He envisioned a facility serving long-term-care patients as well as the public, and housing a first-of-its-kind research facility for the study of chronic illness. 


The task of constructing and organizing the state-of-the-art hospital fell to the City’s Commissioner of Hospitals, Dr. Sigismund Schulz Goldwater, who would later become the building’s namesake. Together with Dr. Ernst Boas, Chairman of the Welfare Council’s committee on Chronic Illness, Goldwater began outlining an institution that would reflect the growing shift in common healthcare practice from quarantine and symptomatic care to research and biomedical engineering. This included appointing a research committee, scientific staff, and educators. 


According to a 1945 Department of Health retrospective report, Dr. Goldwater had realized “more knowledge is necessary than anyone possesses now.” The development of Goldwater Memorial Hospital’s research operations was steered by the belief in the “equitable advancement of education” in the medical field. The result was creation of the Research Division of Chronic Diseases of the Department of Health, which would ultimately be housed in the new hospital. 


When completed in 1939, Goldwater Memorial Hospital, known until 1942 as the Welfare Hospital for Chronic Disease, held a total of 1,500 beds, not all of which were dedicated to the research division, and cost over $6 million. It occupied the size of five city blocks on ten acres of land. 


Photo from the Roosevelt Island Historical Society. 


“There is good reason to believe that this institution is a pioneer in its field… the only one of its kind projected in the United States and is in all probability unique,” wrote the Research Council, the hospital’s supervisory committee, in 1937. 


Over the next decades, Goldwater Memorial Hospital’s reputation became as vast as its campus. 


The facility first treated survivors of polio with long-term-care needs and technological innovations for independent living. The Research Division conducted laboratory investigations in arteriosclerosis, arthritis, rheumatic fever, and cirrhosis of the liver. 


Dr. David Seegal, director of Goldwater Memorial Hospital, made advances in the treatment of kidney disease.


Nutrition studies linked the usage of vitamin supplements to a reduction in the likelihood of developing some chronic illnesses, presenting the concept of preventative health care. 


The institution’s provision of education was realized as students of New York University Medical College and Columbia University staffed its nationally-renowned medical laboratories. 


Wartime Efforts


As the U.S. government began making provisions for World War II, knowledge of blood transfusion technology, food rationing, vaccinations, and climate tolerance climbed to the fore of the National Research Committee’s priority list. In response, the federal government launched the War Time Program in 1939. Researchers at Goldwater Memorial Hospital, directed by Dr. James A. Shannon, conducted studies of blood substitutes and anti-malarial drugs in 1943 for the program. The significance of Dr. Shannon’s work was of local and international interest; a pivotal factor to military combat in foreign lands and to public health in U.S. cities. 


Photo from the Roosevelt Island Historical Society. 


Later, Dr. Julius Axelrod carried out pioneering studies in pharmacology at Goldwater. He would later win the 1970 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.


By the 1970s, however, the changing needs of modern healthcare had left Goldwater Memorial Hospital behind. Despite the facility’s significance in the research realm, it was torn down in 2014 to make way for the next iteration of innovation. Cornell Tech’s campus reinforces the Island’s multi-generational legacy of research, education, and architectural prowess – bringing new opportunities and paving the way for the future. 


Melanie C. Colter is a Master of Arts candidate in Historic Preservation Planning at Cornell University, College of Architecture, Art, and Planning.


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