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cropped image 1cropped image 1 [Written for the Leader.]





Continuing, from last week, the exploration of the above establishment (intended for the general and non-professional reader, of course), it is to be said here that nobody will find out the points of this old and extensive Hospital, with its management and deeply interesting particulars and history, on one or two visits. Though I have been there twenty times, I feel unable to do justice, even to this kind of account of it, which only aims to skim over the surface.


In the three buildings comprising the Hospital, there are, at the time of sketching them (middle of March, 1862), about 400 patients, illustrating nearly all sorts of diseases, except infectious ones and insanity. A large proportion, however, are surgical cases, contusions, fractures, wounds, &c. When an accident happens in any of the down-town wards, the patient is generally brought here at once, either by friends or policemen.

The entire number of patients admitted during the past year (1861) was 3,624. About two-thirds of the patients pay their board, or have it paid for them by the State Government, or that of the United States. At present the United States has quite a good many soldiers here, from the Volunteer Regiments passing through New York. For these they pay seventy-five cents a-day per man.


In the new south part of the Hospital are the sailors' wards, &c. The House Surgeon of this division is Dr. Little, whose office is on the second floor; Dr. Hogan's office is also on this floor. I am under obligations to them both, for their courtesy during my visits, and for professional explanations of cases. Drs. Cutter and Sturges should also be mentioned, and Dr. Kennedy.2 Also Dr. Vandervoort, the librarian.3 Of the library itself I have not here time to speak. It is quite a large collection, and is situated in the Old Hospital.


I saw a surgical operation of some importance in the South Building, in the theatre devoted to such work. It was by Dr. Peters, surrounded by quite a swarm of surgeons and students. It was with the knife, cutting for calculus in the bladder (stone, or gravel); the patient, James Kelly, a young fireman, from the engine-room of a U. S. steamship. The patient was thoroughly chloroformed, and the operation, as near as I could judge, was admirably put through. The calculus (stone), extracted at last by Dr. P. with gentle but firm hand, holding a pair of nippers, seemed to me larger than the end joint of my thumb, and round as a cherry. Young Kelly was then bundled up and carried back to his cot, down stairs.4

I saw him the next day, and asked him if he was indeed insensible during the entire operation. He said he was perfectly insensible as if he had been dead. On coming in the theatre he had mounted the operating table and lay down upon it—saw the students, &c., crowding around—saw me standing up, a little one side—inhaled, from its sponge, the chloroform . . . . . . and then the next thing he knew, when he woke up, he was lying faint and sore in his cot in the ward—and, for his first sign of sense, he noticed the light glinting on the brass number of his ward, over the door, just opposite his bed.

He afterward, I believe, progressed favorably, and has either gone out cured or will soon go.

From the conversation I had with the surgeons, it seems that all this technically called lithotriptic class of diseases (the stone) has decreased quite remarkably in New York, of late years. Some attribute the improvement to Croton water.5 In former times, both abroad and here, there were some awful cases of this malady; the tortures were almost beyond human endurance. The calculus was sometimes sought to be reached by powerful solvents, and sometimes broken by instruments. Every literary man will remember poor Montaigne's case—how he suffered the fifteen or twenty last years of his life from this trouble, and how much there is about it all through his Essays, and his Italian Journey.6

In our day, as I take it, from the talk of the surgeons, the severest calculus in the bladder is supposed to be in their power, by means of chloroform and the knife in the hands of a competent operator. Calculus in the kidneys themselves is perhaps the worst, with agonizing pains and inflammations.

The Hospital Museum has a very large and curious collection of calculi, some of them of almost incredible size, and many small ones, extracted, at one time and another, from patients suffering under this complaint.


This—as I think I have mentioned before—is in a little two-story building, standing by itself, between the Old Hospital and Broadway, to the left of the inner gate, as you enter from the great thoroughfare. Here are collected many valuable specimens and practical memoranda of the most remarkable cases that have been treated in the Hospital, for the past fifty years. The curator of the pathological cabinet, &c., is Dr. J. J. Hull, who spends much of his time in preparing and preserving for surgical, medical and scientific enlightenment, any marked illustrations of disease, deformity—and also, from time to time, interesting normal specimens of anatomy, &c.7

These being collected together in the upper story of the building, with the accumulations of past curators and surgeons, and contributions of one kind and another from the medical staff of the Hospital, make a very good museum of its kind. The most horrible and painful liabilities of humanity are exemplified by the memoranda of this cabinet. Here are casts, exactly modeled from the living or dead subject, of tumors, of huge, looming size, on the chin, the side or back of the neck, or top of the head—the latter excrescence, in some cases, larger than a peck measure.

Then, again, a specimen, from a case in the Hospital, of the fearful affliction called Elephantiasis (by some supposed to be identical with the old Hebrew and Egyptian leprosy). In this case here in the Hospital the disease attacked the legs, which attained an enormous size (it is almost always, I believe, in the legs or face). Loathsome sores ensue, which discharge offensive matter; till by and by the fiend works his way through the tissues to the joints and bones, and the hapless patient literally rots to death! It is what is called a tuberculous disease technically (lepra tuberculosa), of the category of scrofula, I suppose. The chances of recovery are very small. The whole malady, treatment, &c., is very baffling; but fortunately it is rare in this country.


It is quite a prevailing idea that this institution belongs to the city, and is kept up at its expense; but that is a mistake entirely. The city contributes nothing to its support, and, I believe, never has contributed anything. The State authorities, by act of Legislature, donate, or rather have donated, all along, in times past, about $13,000 a year to the Hospital; but I am informed that this source of supply is now cut off, and the establishment depends on its own resources, which are payments from the pay patients (about 60 per cent. of the whole number), and also its receipts from the United States Government for board and medical attendance for sailors and soldiers, and also from the New York State Government for similar services. The Hospital has no property producing annual income.


Men are charged $4 a week, and women $3. There are some rooms (and very nice ones they are, especially in the South Building) which a patient can have all to himself, for the price of $1 a day. This includes all the expenses of board, &c., and medical attendance constantly at hand.


Some of the nurses are real characters, and favorable specimens, at that. I saw a vigorous-looking woman, a Swedess by birth, Mrs. Jackson, who has been a nurse here for thirty years. I saw another nurse among the soldiers in the North Building, Mrs. Mack, whose good size and healthy and handsome appearance, I thought ought to do good, salutary service, even just to see her moving around among the sick.


But by what I hear from the doctors in the Hospital, no sketch of that establishment could be fair unless it put in a word about Aunty Robinson, a colored nurse, who has officiated there in that capacity for over twenty years. This good creature has all the appearance of one of the most favorable samples of the Southern mammy, or house nurse, in the families of the high old Carolina and Virginia planters. She has big old-fashioned gold ear-rings in her ears, and wears a clean, bright red and yellow blue handkerchief around her head, and such an expression on her face, that I at once made up my mind, if ever I should be unfortunate enough to go to the Hospital as a patient, I should want to be nursed by Aunty Robinson.8


There still remain many points of interest about the Broadway Hospital, which I may give in another and concluding paper. The North Hospital, full of soldiers, is well worthy of exploration.

Then there is a long history, not without romantic incidents, of the earlier years of the institution, and so down to the present time, including the "Doctors' Riots," which created so much alarm, and were so celebrated in their time.9



1. Broadway Hospital, also known as New York Hospital, was the first major hospital in New York City. Prior to his more famous visits to the Civil War hospitals in Washington, Whitman visited the Broadway Hospital for several years beginning in the 1850s, developing close personal friendships with many of the sick and wounded and with the physicians. [back]

2. Significant information is not available on these doctors. [back]

3. John L. Vandervoort had been the hospital librarian since 1837. He served in the position for over 50 years and added over 14,000 volumes to the library's collections. [back]

4. James Kelley is unidentified. [back]

5. The Croton Dam, originally built in 1842 on the Croton River, was the first clean water system in New York City but soon proved inadequate. [back]

6. Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century essayist, famously suffered from calculi of the bladder and documented it in his work. [back]

7. J. J. Hull was curator of the Pathological Museum attached to the New York Hospital. [back]

8. The "mammy" figure of Aunty Robinson inspired Whitman in later years. For a more detailed discussion, see Ed Folsom, "Lucifer and Ethiopia: Whitman, Race, and Poetics before the Civil War and After," in A Historical Guide to Walt Whitman, ed. David S. Reynolds (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 65–66. [back]

9. The 1788 "Doctors' Riots" of New York City resulted from community anger over medical students' common but illegal practice of disinterring human remains for the purpose of performing dissections. Mobs ransacked New York Hospital's laboratories and doctors' homes, and doctors and medical students had to be sheltered at the jail. When the mob refused to disperse, soldiers fired into the crowd, killing five and wounding eight more. As a result of these riots, in 1789 the first law regulating anatomy practices was passed. See Edward Robb Ellis, The Epic of New York City: A Narrative History (New York: Carrol & Graf Publishers, 2004), 181–183. [back]

10. "Velsor Brush" was Whitman's pseudonym for a series of articles entitled "City Photographs," which he published in the New York Leader. The name was a combination of his mother's maiden name (Louisa Van Velsor) and grandmother's maiden name (Hannah Brush). For a discussion of the possible artistic implications of the name Brush, see Ruth L. Bohan, Looking into Walt Whitman: American Art, 1850–1920 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), 25–26. [back]

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