Bellevue Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital: Book Review


By David Oshinsky

In 2016, a Johns Hopkins safety review panel reported that every year, 250,000 deaths in the United States are attributable to medical error. That’s a whopping 9.5% of all deaths in the country. As eye-opening as this statistic may be, it pales in comparison to deaths attributable to medical misadventure in previous centuries. According to David Oshinsky, author of Bellevue, eighteenth and nineteenth century medical treatment was as likely to be the cause of death as it was to save life. The evolution of medical care from that dark age occurred in fits and starts. Dr. Oshinsky offers a gripping description of the journey from darkness to the relative enlightenment of today.

This author skillfully blends medical and social history. He demonstrates the knack of a skilled teacher as he weaves anecdotes into a narrative of hard facts. Dr. Oshinsky has so much information at hand, that he doesn’t need to resort to conjecture to enliven his story. Truth, he proves, is indeed stronger than fiction.

Examples of Dr. Oshinsky’s dynamic writing are on display throughout the book, most memorably in his descriptions of surgery without anesthesia and treatment without antiseptics. In the first case, a boy’s leg is amputated. The father is present and aids in restraining his son. The sound of a saw fills the surgical theater as the child, without benefit of anesthesia, loses his leg. Shrieks fill the room. The father faints. We, the readers, are left with an indelible impression.

In another instance, President James Garfield suffers the consequences of medical obstinacy. The President is shot. An assassin’s bullet must be removed. The esteemed Dr. Frank Hamilton of Bellevue is called in. He, confident in his skills, declines to follow new guidelines in medicine that prescribe sterilization before contact with a patient. Garfield dies, month later, of massive infection. It is the medical consensus that this death was due not to an assassin’s bullet but to medical misadventure.

Dr. Oshinsky comes to the task of writing his book with excellent credentials. He is a professor of history at New York University and the director of Medical Humanities at NYU Langone Medical Center. In addition, he has won a Pulitzer Prize for an earlier book, Polio: An American Story.

The current book, Bellevue, is about the history of a public institution, and it is more. It traces the history of health care in New York City. It introduces readers to some giants of modern medicine, including Robert Koch, Joseph Lister and Florence Nightingale. The author’s broad perspective offers insight into the immigrant experience and its intersection with New York City politics. Dr. Oshinsky’s wide lens creates a richly textured tableau in which Bellevue Hospital is the focal point.

Bellevue is an easy read. I recommend it to anyone interested in history, and to those readers who would like to gain insight into the culture of the medical profession.

By A. G. Moore 2/10/17

The picture of Bellevue Hospital (above) is used under a Creative Commons
 4.0 International License
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