A View from 100 Years Ago

I recently spent some time reviewing the President’s Report section of the Annual Report of The Mount Sinai Hospital from 1921 (linked here, starting on page 190).  The President then was George Blumenthal, a devoted trustee, and a smart businessman who had recently guided the Hospital through a major expansion program, the uncertainties of World War I, and the influenza epidemic of 1918. Reading the report reminded me of the joys – and problems – with reading primary historical sources: it is very easy in hindsight to see connections between two times that may not be related, and simple observations can seem very prescient.

Don’t get me wrong, parts of the report are very dated and irrelevant to today: the Hospital was unable to afford radium to use in patient treatment, and so that service was not provided. There was also a section on issues related to fund raising through the Federation of Jewish Charities (today’s UJA-Federation). But still, there were many issues that would seem familiar to our current leaders. The Hospital was perennially short of money, but after the epidemic and the war, wages were rising quickly for what today would be called “essential workers”.  Adding to this was a restrictive immigration policy that limited the labor pool. The inability to hire as many trained nurses as they needed was a continuing struggle as well, something the whole country recognizes today.

George Blumenthal, President of The Mount Sinai Hospital from 1911-1938

And yet Blumenthal made the case – as we do today – for why private hospitals like Mount Sinai deserve the philanthropic support of the people. He says:

It is absolutely essential that private institutions like Mount Sinai should be leaders of progress in hospital work…. To discover, test and demonstrate new methods of treatment is recognized as one of the functions of private institutions and it is one of the strongest reasons for their existence and constitutes their most important claim on the generosity of the public which supports them.

A couple of pages later, Blumenthal makes a bold statement about the importance of Mount Sinai being a teaching hospital. At this time it had loose clinical ties to both Columbia and NYU. He envisioned something more:

A Hospital possessing the clinical and laboratory resources of Mount Sinai should have university affiliation or if this be impracticable should independently utilize its organization for teaching purposes, for in no other way can the fullest benefits be derived from the intensive study of interesting, varied and often perplexing clinical material. We hope the day is not very far off when work on these lines can be done either through affiliation with one of the many teaching institutions located in our city or by independent action.

And “independent action” it was. Even with academic affiliations with various medical schools, in the 1950s Mount Sinai was not satisfied that they were living up to their potential in terms of training the next generation of physician/scientists or using their immense clinical material for creating new medical knowledge to advance patient care. In 1963, the Trustees received a charter to create their own medical and graduate schools. The Mount Sinai School of Medicine opened in 1968.

Alexander Hamilton and How Mount Sinai Got to the Upper East Side

I recently read a piece about Hamilton Square in the Roosevelt Island Historical Society’s From the Archives email. This park, which was named for Alexander Hamilton, existed on the Upper East Side of Manhattan from around 1807-1869. I found this fascinating since The Mount Sinai Hospital moved to Lexington Ave. and 66th St. in 1872. I knew that the City had ‘seeded’ this area with non-profit entities: Hunter College, many hospitals and schools, but I had never heard about the Square itself, which ran from 66th to 69th Streets between 3rd and 5th Avenues. Finally, Mount Sinai had a Hamilton connection, even though he died in 1804, 48 years before the Hospital was created!

Map of Hamilton Square from the New-York Historical Society

When the Square was broken up, The Mount Sinai Hospital (MSH) was located on W. 28th Street, between 7th & 8th Avenues. It had been founded in 1852 as the Jews’ Hospital in the City of New York (the name was changed in 1866) and had opened its first building in 1855. After the Civil War, the leadership realized that the facility was inadequate and the location less than ideal due to the growth of the City. On November 2, 1867 the Directors authorized the purchase of ten lots of land from 65th to 66th Street on the west side of Park (then 4th) Ave. and later added eight more lots there. But then on October 6, 1868, the City leased Mount Sinai twelve lots of land between 66th and 67th on Lexington Ave. for $1 a year for 99 years. Somehow, over the interim, the City and Mount Sinai had reached an agreement on the Hospital taking over part of the former Hamilton Square. The earlier lots were later sold, saving Mount Sinai thousands of dollars. On May 25, 1870, the cornerstone for the second MSH was laid.  The President of the Hospital, Benjamin Nathan, and Mayor Oakley Hall were there.  (Within two months, Nathan was murdered in his bed on a ‘dark and stormy night.’)

On May 29, 1872,  a dedication ceremony was held for the new Mount Sinai Hospital.  When the building opened, it had a greatly expanded capacity of 110 beds. The building was designed by the well-known architect, Griffeth Thomas, and cost $335,000 to complete. It had an operating room in the basement of the north wards, rooms for our newly created House Staff to live in, a meeting room for the Directors, and a synagogue. Lexington Ave. remained unpaved for two more years, and the Hospital never wired the facility for electricity. A telephone was installed in 1882; the number was “Thirty-Ninth St., 257”. It was at this site that Mount Sinai transformed into what we would recognize as a modern hospital, with medical education and research joining its core mission of providing patient care.

In typical Mount Sinai fashion, this facility quickly became too small. Additional buildings were built and major renovations were begun in 1882. In 1890, Mount Sinai added a building across from the Hospital on the north side of 67th St. for our nursing school and Out Patient Department. This building is the only remnant of Mount Sinai that remains there today. It later served as the home of the Neurological Institute, the Polish legation, and finally became a school for the Archdiocese of NY. The Mount Sinai Hospital moved from Lexington Ave. in 1904 to its current East Side location on 100th St., between Madison and 5th Avenues. The name of Hamilton continues on various buildings and neighborhoods of the City, making its most recent appearance on Broadway.