Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Roosevelt Hospital

Noah DeLone
New York, United States

 Roosevelt Hospital, 1871

The stretch of land between West 58th and West 59th street in Manhattan, abutted by 9th avenue, is not just a hospital, but a philosophical and humanitarian inheritance set into motion by its founder, James Roosevelt. Much of the life of James Roosevelt has been lost to history; much can be understood by his known actions and words. He was a young lawyer with a promising future who became unexpectedly disabled by illness; he spent much of his later life increasing his worth via real estate dealings while living frugally.1 It is thought he conserved and raised these funds for “the establishment in the City of New York of an [sic] hospital for the reception and relief of sick and diseased persons.”1 Shortly after his death in 1863, he left in excess of $1 million dollars towards that goal.1 It is thought that after a life of struggling with disease, he wished to help others in less fortunate circumstances.1 His dream lives on in this magnificent hospital where I and my colleagues provide care for all sick comers regardless of creed, wealth, or status.

Roosevelt Hospital laid its first cornerstone in 1869 and opened its doors on November 2, 1871.2 It has since become an inimitable part of New York City history, modern healthcare, and a landmark of contemporary culture. Only 16 years later the first successful post-perforation appendectomy was performed.2 Two years later New York’s own Hippocrates, Charles McBurney, joined the clinical staff and formulated the classic diagnostic landmark “McBurney’s point.”2 Dr.McBurney would go on to assume the responsibility for designing and planning the Syms Operating Theatre, reported to be a model of “new generation” operating theatres and one of the finest in the world.3

Clearly this hospital is no stranger to innovation and invention, but its truly magnificent legacy is its service it to the community. From a social service started in 1912 to cater to the needs of patients outside the hospital walls, a free library service for patients opened in 1931, to a volunteer services department opened in 1932, the hospital has consistently been both a source of social support and a place lay persons might give their time to help the sick.3 Roosevelt Hospital garnered a reputation for being a friendly place, so much so that a good number of former patients, once ameliorated, would come back as volunteers.3

The hospital did not just coddle surgeons perfecting their incision techniques or radiologists mastering the art of a well exposed x-ray; it cultivated an atmosphere of awareness and involvement in the affairs of the world. Roosevelt Hospital was among the first to develop a voluntary brigade of doctors and nurses for rapid placement at the site of civilian strife or wartime enemy action.2 In 1942 the unit was activated and provided care to military personnel and civilians in North Africa, the Italian peninsula Sicily, France, and Germany.2

By 1952 the institution had formalized its affiliation with Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, whose medical students had been assisting in patient wards since 1914.2 This relationship would last another 62 years, only to be replaced by an affiliation with Mount Sinai Medical School in 2014. In fact, it was the medical students, residents, and alumni of the program that made Roosevelt Hospital the most proud: they were affectionately known as the “living product.”3

In 1971, R. Brinkley Smithers pledged $10 million dollars to combat alcoholism at Roosevelt Hospital—the largest single grant, private or governmental, ever to do so.4 He was a man of wealth who struggled with the disease himself. He donated much of his personal and inherited wealth to combat the disease. Two years later, The Smithers Alcoholism Center and Rehabilitation Unit would open in the former Billy Rose mansion at 56 East 93rd street, where it would go on to treat thousands, from the famous to the impoverished.4

The walls of Roosevelt hospital have been rebuilt, corridors extended, educational affiliations changed, ambulance service upgraded, its medical services merged, and yet, despite the wear of the time, it retains the elemental philosophy James Roosevelt put in place all those years ago. Roosevelt hospital then, is not just special because of its cornerstone and moldings, but because of the selfless caregivers and pioneers of the medical frontier who have been practicing within its doors for well over a century.


  1. Lathrop, J.R. History and description of the Roosevelt hospital, New York City,(New York: JJ. Little & Co., 1893).
  2. Roosevelt Hospital Historical Timeline. http://www.roosevelthospitalnyc.org/uploadedFiles/Roosevelt_Hospital/Roosevelt_Content/About_Us/RooseveltHospitalTimeline.pdf. Accessed December 15, 2014.
  3. Cutler, C.W., Martin, A.T., Peightal T.C. The Roosevelt Hospital 1871-1957.(New York: The Roosevelt Hospital, 1957).
  4. Richardson L. (1999, January 28). Clouds Over Future of an Alcoholism Treatment Center. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1999/01/28/nyregion/clouds-over-future-of-an-alcoholism-treatment-center.html.

NOAH DELONE, M.D., M.S., B.S., is an Emergency Medicine resident at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital, with research interests that include biomedical engineering, neurophysiology, and adaptive neural prosthetics. Other academic interests include Latin, Stoic philosophy, and economics. He received his BS from University of Florida in 2009, his MS in biomedical engineering from Florida International University in 2013, and his MD from Florida International University in 2014.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Winter 2017 – Volume 9, Issue 1

Spring 2015



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