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Uplifting the History of the NYEEI

First opened over 200 years ago, the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary was founded by two doctors, Dr. Edward Delafield and Dr. John Kearny Rodgers, with the hope of bringing accessible ophthalmology to the residents of New York. One of the most significant sites of medical history in our city, the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary (NYEEI) is located at Second Avenue and 13th Street. 

The NYEEI has decades of recognition, awards, and breakthroughs. But the building where these events transpired is now endangered. As of March 2023, however, the hospital’s plan to disperse services and sell off its historic building has been put on hold, albeit temporarily, by the state panel required to greenlight the project. The remarkable story of the NYEEI, and some of the well-known figures that contributed to its success, are connected to the history of this building, making this pause in progress welcome news in the fight against real estate acquisition in our neighborhood and beyond.

Clipping from New York Times Coverage of Helen Keller’s speech in 1903
Helen Keller and companion Polly Thomson crossing the street in front of Tiffany and Co. store

The NYEEI has a history that features many notable figures of ophthalmology and otolaryngology history. Most recognizable is the well-known disability rights activist, suffragist, and civil libertarian Helen Keller. In 1903, the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary received funds for a new pavilion from the late philanthropist and grandson of Peter Schermerhorn, William Colford, totaling $75,000. The money was used to create the Schermerhorn Aural Pavilion. On opening day, philanthropic guests listened to the inspiring words of Helen Keller:

“This institution has become your sacred burden. Look at it, lift it, bear it proudly. It is your part and privilege to hold up the hands of the physicians here who are fellow ‘Workment’ together with god.” 

Women’s Ward in the Schermerhorn Pavilion.

Dr. David Kearny McDonogh was another historic figure that contributed immeasurably to the impact of the NYEEI, starting a revolutionary career in ophthalmology here. The story of McDonogh began in New Orleans, Louisiana, when he was born into slavery in 1821. Following his enslavement, and eventual release, he was granted the opportunity to study at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. 

During his studies, he became deeply interested in the medical field; determined to finish his education, he was supported by Senator Walter Lowrie until his graduation in 1844, making him the first African American graduate of the school. Placed in contact with NYEEI founder Dr. John Kearny Rodgers, McDonogh began his studies at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1844, finishing his degree by 1847. Columbia would deny him the receipt of his diploma, so Dr. Rodgers moved forward with adding McDonogh to his staff at the NYEEI. He worked there as a specialist for eleven years. 

Painted by Leroy Campbell and entitled, “Tribute to David Kearny McDonogh, MD” (2020)
Posthumous Degree awarded by Columbia University to Dr. McDonogh in 2018

Dr. Rodgers’ radical acceptance of Dr. McDonagh’s medical practice is just one example of the persistent efforts for equality and diversity seen at NYEEI over the last 200 years. If you want to help preserve the historic NYEEI, click here to send letters to city officials who don’t yet support its landmark designation, including Mayor Adams, Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair Sarah Carroll, and local City Councilmember Carlina Rivera.

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