'Bellevue': A hospital for everyone - and every time

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Bellevue
By David Oshinsky
Doubleday
400 pp. $30

Reviewed by Jenni Laidman

The rumble of major social trends, political history, and changes in scientific understanding create seismic waves that ripple through the history of the Manhattan hospital known as Bellevue. In fact, when it comes to medical history, some of the waves begin there.

David Oshinsky follows these many tremors in this deeply engrossing history. "They come knowing they won't be turned away," Oshinsky writes. "Every immigrant group has availed itself of Bellevue's protective umbrella over the centuries; every disaster and epidemic has packed its Spartan wards."

In the hospital's 300-year history, thousands of the humble and the famous (William S. Burroughs, Eugene O'Neill, Charlie Parker, Leadbelly, Saul Bellow, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, to name a few) have crowded its corridors. Epidemic disease overflowed Bellevue's wards in repeated waves - from yellow fever in the 1790s through AIDS in the 1980s and '90s.

The Civil War filled Bellevue's beds, depleted its medical staff, and, ultimately, led to innovations we take for granted - ambulance service and professional nursing. Its doctors battled their own civil war as medicine moved from the idea that disease was spread by bad air - miasmas - to a knowledge of germs, and the grim truth that physicians were contributing to the death of their patients.

In more recent decades, crack cocaine and the surge of homelessness nearly overwhelmed it. These were perhaps the hospital's biggest threats until Huricane Sandy did overwhelm it, leading Bellevue to close for the only time in its long history.

There is no easy narrative path through this material, yet Oshinsky has wrestled an institutional history of significant complexity into a compelling tale. Winner of the 2006 Pulitzer for Polio: An American Story, Oshinsky is a master of finding and relating memorable anecdotes to embody the history. The result is a serious story studded with juicy and occasionally blood-curdling bits from the past: physicians experimenting on unknowing patients, rats frolicking in the wards, gruesome murder trials in which Bellevue's forensic experts play roles in nail-biting whodunits.

Bellevue, above all else, has been a place for people with nowhere else to turn. "The patients it currently serves are every bit as poor and needy as the patients who preceded them in centuries past," Oshinsky writes. "That's what makes Bellevue so comforting and so disquieting. It stands, for all its troubles, as a vital safety net, a place of caring and a place of last resort."

This review originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune.