By Sabina Mollot
Nearly seven decades before Mount Sinai Beth Israel began the process of transitioning to a new, smaller hospital facility, another neighborhood hospital was also planning a move — but this place was unique in that it was staffed entirely by women doctors.
That hospital was the New York Infirmary, which had first opened its doors on May 12, 1857 as the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. It was founded by the English-born Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to become a doctor in the United States. Its mission, along with healing the city’s sick and poor, was also to educate women to become medical professionals. Its first location was in a house in Greenwich Village, though it moved to Stuyvesant Square in 1858 when it outgrew that space.
There it remained for 90 years, but not long after the nearby apartment complexes of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village were built, the hospital once again needed more space. It had been operating out of several antiquated buildings with an address of 321 East 15th Street.
So in March of 1948, it began the process of raising $500,000 for the move. By that time, as an article in Town & Village noted, more than 750 doctors had been trained at the infirmary and 897,000 patients cared for. “It is the infirmary’s conviction that a training program for women doctors is vitally needed,” the article said.
Blackwell became a doctor herself after visiting family friend, dying from what may have been uterine cancer. The friend admitted she’d been too shy to seek treatment from a male physician and would have liked the option of seeing a woman.
Her infirmary, a project that Blackwell and her sister Emily started after opening a dispensary four years earlier, was an instant success.
In its first eight months, 866 outpatients were treated and 48 inpatients. The following year those numbers doubled, according to a 2008 article by Dr. Steven Friedman. The article, in Journal of the American College of Surgeons, noted that care was $4 for women and children for those who could afford it, free for those who couldn’t. Students from women’s medical schools worked at the infirmary between semesters, with less-skilled women working as nurses.
Blackwell’s infirmary was also the first in the country to train a black woman as a doctor and the first to train women as nurses. During the Civil War, the little buildings which housed the clinic trained women to work on the battlefields. In 1869, the first chair of hygiene in a medical college was created. The first social service in the city was done by the hospital. In another first, the hospital was the only one in New York City, 70 years ago, Town & Village was told, to diagnose cancer as well as treat it.
Over the years, the majority of the infirmary’s patients were poor and paid little to nothing for their care. However, demand for the care was high with the wards almost always filled to capacity with 2,800 visits a year. Cancer alone was a big part of the reason the hospital decided to move, since there simply weren’t enough hospitals or clinics to care for New Yorkers with the disease.
However, the hospital also just needed a more space. Records of patient visits had been kept in an office that was exactly three by one and a half feet. As the New York Infirmary’s records produced by the Philip Boyer Organization, also note, the buildings were no longer considered up to current fire code.
Additionally, the future of women in medicine was a factor. As the hospital told Town & Village at the time, only five percent of doctors in America were women, while that figure was 15 percent in Russia and 17 percent in England.
“When a new New York Infirmary is built, work by women doctors will increase in scope and effectiveness,” this newspaper reported. “The old infirmary record was achieved in spite of inadequate facilities. The new building will be an incentive for expanded service for patients, new research projects and new vistas for work.”
The hospital, after fundraising to build a 250-bed facility, was able to purchase the block from 15th to 16th Streets on Livingston Place (later renamed Perlman Place), hospital records show. Among other individuals, Metropolitan Life CEO Fred Ecker was involved in the fundraising campaign. As for the new property, the land was at the time occupied by tenement buildings, whose occupants left in exchange for commitments to move them to equal or better apartments. A few bonus payments were necessary, but, “There was no hardship and no controversy arose,” according to the hospital’s records.
Construction began in October, 1952, and by August, 1954, the new hospital admitted its first patients.
The infirmary eventually did wind up leaving the neighborhood though, with Wikipedia offering some relatively recent history. In 1981, the infirmary merged with Beekman Downtown, and relocated to the site where it has remained to this day in Lower Manhattan as New York Infirmary-Beekman Downtown Hospital. In 1991, it was renamed New York Downtown Hospital. In 1997, following an affiliation with New York University, it became NYU Downtown Hospital. In 2005, the affiliation with NYU Medical Center ended and the hospital once again became New York Downtown Hospital. Then, following a merger in 2013 with New York Presbyterian Hospital, it was renamed New York Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital. It is still a teaching hospital.