Photograph Emilio Guerra
In 1852 Aaron Burr’s “confidential secretary,” Sampson Simson, led a group of esteemed Jewish New Yorkers to establish the Jew’s Hospital on West 28th Street “to afford surgical and medical aid, comfort, and protection in sickness to deserving and needy Israelites,” and to provide today's equivalent of emergency room treatment.
During the Civil War, the return of wounded soldiers prompted the hospital to change its name in 1866 to Mount Sinai Hospital. The less sectarian-sounding name helped solicit public funding and private donations.
A year later the board began searching for a less-congested site for a new building. Mid-19th Century medical theory held that open air helped promote healing and health and, in 1868, the city turned over to the hospital 12 ideal lots on East 67th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues. Here architect Griffith Thomas produced an impressive French Second Empire hospital completed in 1872.
Immediately the board moved ahead with plans for a dispensary – a relatively new concept by which patients would receive treatment on an out-patient basis, then referred to as “out-door patients.”
In 1875 two rooms in the basement were relegated to the dispensary for “Internal Medicine, Surgical, Gynecological and Children’s.” By 1877 the required space had grown to four rooms and by 1882 the Dispensary was seeing almost 39,000 patients and dispensing 40,000 prescriptions.
A new building was clearly needed by the end of the decade.
On June 27, 1890 The New York Times reported on the opening. “The new building is a fine-looking structure, six stories in height, and is as nearly fire-proof as brick and iron can make it. It stands on the opposite side of the street from Mount Sinai Hospital, and is connected with that useful institution by a tunnel.”
When the first class of nurses graduated that year, the managers of the school told reporters that the school “now has as good facilities for training nurses as any training school in the city.”
The 1893 “American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record” commented on the ethnic and social segmentation seen in New York City dispensaries. “In the German dispensaries one naturally expects to see Germans only; at Bellevue the Irish hold the field; at the New York Dispensary, in Centre Street, Italy is regnant; at the East Side Dispensary, Hungarians and Bohemians prevail; while at Mt. Sinai and the Good Samaritan Dispensary the attendance is almost exclusively Jewish.” It went on to mention that the Vanderbilt Clinic on 10th Avenue and 16th Street catered to the wealthy. “Indeed it is a remark one hears frequently…that at the Vanderbilt Clinic ‘people come in carriages.’”
At a time when pharmacies were charging ten cents for a two-ounce “preparation,” the dispensaries were providing prescription drugs for free. In addition, the Mount Sinai Dispensary sent trained nurses on house calls at no charge to those unable to travel. The situation provided fertile ground for abuse of the system.
In 1892, a spot-check of 36 of the 31,185 cases treated exposed that 12 gave false addresses, 7 were judged able to pay and 17 were found certifiably in need. In 1895 the institution was running $6,000 in the red. By 1909 the abuse was so rampant, resulting in overcrowded waiting rooms, that the Eastern Medical Society appointed a “Dispensary Committee to study the problem and devise means for remedying its evils.”
The Committee said “The real harm from indiscriminate admissions to dispensaries is not that a few mendacious, mean-spirited rich impostors slip in and get free treatment, but that the whole wage-earning class, nearly all of whom could afford to pay the physician privately, is gradually being taught that medical attendance is something they should receive for nothing, and that there is no disgrace when they pauperize themselves by begging for it.”
Relatively minor changes to the dispensary system were implemented to ease the abuse and the Mount Sinai Dispensary continued its medical service well into the 20th Century on 67th Street.
In 1987 the building was taken over by The Kennedy Child Study Center, established in 1958 by the Archdiocese of New York. The center had been established through a grant from the Kennedy family as a memorial to Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. and in response to Rosemary Kennedy’s mental retardation.
The non-profit agency is geared to very young children – from infants to 5-year old -- with significant learning difficulties and developmental problems.
The former Mount Sinai Dispensary building, which the AIA Guide to New York City termed “eclectic, but dignified,” still functions under the Kennedy Child Study Center as the care-giving sanctuary it was first intended to be.