Take Me to Bellevue

A shared room at the Bellevue Men’s Shelter, housed since 1984 in the former psychiatric building of Bellevue Hospital, New York City, 2010; photograph by Eric Michael Johnson
Eric Michael Johnson
A shared room at the Bellevue Men’s Shelter, housed since 1984 in the former psychiatric building of Bellevue Hospital, New York City, 2010; photograph by Eric Michael Johnson

When I was a boy growing up in Brooklyn in the years following World War II, I did not know that Bellevue was a hospital. I thought it was simply the name for a scary place that housed grotesque and terrifying crazy people. Later on, my brother Robert, a mental patient for most of his adult life, was sent to other infamous facilities, including a state hospital for the criminally insane, Rikers Island, and an insulin shock ward at Creedmoor State Hospital in Queens. I was Robert’s caretaker and advocate during these years, yet when, five years ago, I received a message telling me he had stuffed a toilet in his halfway house and caused a flood, for which act he’d been shipped to the emergency psychiatric ward at Bellevue, I felt a chill as deep as any I had felt during the previous fifty years.

I telephoned Bellevue and, to my surprise, was immediately connected to the psychiatrist who had examined Robert on arrival. “Your brother’s not psychotic,” she said, and—to my relief—laughed. “He’s mischievous, yes, but he’s not psychotic, and we’ll be sending him back home tomorrow.”

“Few hospitals are more deeply embedded in our popular culture” than Bellevue, David Oshinsky writes.

Tales of Bellevue as a receptacle for mangled crime victims, vicious psychopaths, and hopeless derelicts were always common fare, though the late-nineteenth-century circulation wars between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer churned out especially lurid exposés. The splashiest one—Nelly Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad- House—had an indelible effect.

From this point onward, Oshinsky notes, “the hospital became synonymous with bedlam, dwarfing its immense achievements in clinical care and medical research.”

Although Oshinsky gives generous space to events that made Bellevue synonymous with bedlam, he seeks in his richly detailed history to show how this public hospital’s remarkable achievements are connected both to the medical history of the past three centuries and also to the history of the city. “Bellevue,” he writes, “closely mirrors an ever-changing New York.”

By the time of the Civil War, Bellevue “had become both our nation’s largest hospital and its most important medical training ground,” and the reason, Oshinsky tells us, “could be summed up in a single word: immigration.” Early waves of immigrants were mostly Irish and Germans; after them came Italians and Jews; and after them, Hispanics, Haitians, Africans, South Asians, and Chinese. Most of Bellevue’s patients—the poor, the mad, and the despised—have been those who had nowhere else to go.

And yet, according to Oshinsky, in its…

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