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The Hospital for Special Surgery, Born in the East Village

You might be surprised to know that the Hospital for Special Surgery, the oldest existing orthopedic hospital in the United State, and a powerhouse in the world of medicine and orthopedic surgery, actually began in a row house in the increasingly immigrant-filled East Village more than 150 years ago. In 1863 in the middle of the Civil War, Dr. James A. Knight founded this hospital at his home at 97 Second Avenue near East 6th Street, then known as the Hospital for the Relief of the Ruptured and Crippled.

97 Second Avenue today, site of the building which originally housed the Hospital for Relief of the Ruptured and the Crippled (that building has been demolished).

Dr. James A. Knight was born on February 14, 1810 in Maryland, and graduated from the Medical-Chirurgical Faculty in Baltimore, Maryland in 1832 (chirurigcal comes from the Latin word for surgical). He moved to New York City in 1835 and opened his office as a general practitioner. He focused in on what he referred to as “surgico-mechanics,” creating bandaging and support appliances for children with locomotion issues. At that time, there were not any known cures for people with pathological deformities or injuries, and they were not admitted to hospitals since they were not considered sick.

Portrait of Dr. James A. Knight from the Richard L. Menschel Conference Center of the Hospital for Special Surgery.

In the mid-19th century, there was debate among the medical community regarding the approach of surgical intervention for orthopedic maladies versus the use of braces, trusses, and bandages. Dr. Knight favored that latter and in addition to those “surgico-mechanics,” as he referred to them, he also advocated for hygiene, a good diet, exercise, fresh air, education, and religious principles for his patients. However, some of his questionable methods included prescribing mercury for cachectic cases, direct local application of molasses or cod liver oil for corneal ulcers, and Spanish fly blisters for acute stages of hip diseases.

Dr. Knight saw the need for a hospital for rehabilitation, and in 1862 enlisted the help of Robert M. Hartley, then Secretary of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor. On April 15, 1862, Hartley held a meeting forming the society for the relief of the Ruptured and Crippled at No. 39 Bible House. Located at Astor Place and East 9th Street between Third and Fourth Avenues, Bible House was the headquarters of the American Bible Society, an organization devoted to printing and distributing millions of bibles. In attendance at this meeting were Dr. Knight and Hartley, as well as Stewart Brown, Robert M. Minturn, John C. Green, William Bibbins, Joseph P. Collins, and Apollos R. Wetmore. Other prominent members of society were enlisted in the effort, including Virginia Reed Sturges Osborn of 59 Fifth Avenue, her mother Mary Cady Sturges of 5 East 14th Street, and her husband Jonathan Sturges, who would become one of the founding members of the Board.

On May 1, 1863, in Dr. Knight’s residence at 97 Second Avenue, the Hospital for the Relief of the Ruptured and Crippled opened its door to its first patient, a four-year-old boy whose leg had been paralyzed since the age of 18 months. Dr. Knight’s wife and daughter worked for the hospital, as well as four prominent surgeons who acted as consultants: Dr. Valentine Mott, Dr. William H. Van Buren, Dr. Willard Parker and Dr. John M. Carnochan.

In Dr. Knight’s first annual report, he made it clear to the board that the newly formed hospital required a much larger facility than his home could provide. By the spring of 1867, five lots were purchased at the corner of 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue. Architect Edward T. Potter designed the new building, which was opened in 1870.

In the spring of 1870, the building committee of the hospital felt that to secure the institution’s future, an additional $50,000 needed to be raised in order to pay the remaining bills and to provide furnishings. The President and Chairman of the Finance Committee of the hospital, John C. Green, offered $50,000 if the Board could raise the same amount in 30 days. Within that time, the Treasurer, Jonathan Sturges, reported that they were successful in raising that amount and Green, true to his word, handed a check to the institution for $50,000. Sturges reported:

We have a hospital capable of accommodating 200-250 children.
We owe no man anything but love.
We have assets amounting to $100,000.

Hospital for Special Surgery today on Upper East Side, NYC (shot from Roosevelt Island)

Today the Hospital for Special Surgery, in addition to being the oldest orthopedic hospital in the country, is also consistently ranked as the best, and receives patients from around the world seeking its extraordinary level of care. Its status and stature today belie it’s modest origins in the immigrant district around Lower Second Avenue.

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