160 Years - The Smallpox Hospital

Happy 160th Birthday to the Smallpox Hospital

Rendering of the original Smallpox Hospital

Rendering of the original Smallpox Hospital

On this day in history, the Smallpox Hospital opened its doors to victims of this disease. Prior to its opening, patients were housed in what the State of New York described as piles of poor wooden outhouses on the edge of East River. Need for a hospital with proper accommodations was most critical. Fortunately, for its design, the State selected James Renwick, Jr., a young architect who had recently completed the main Smithsonian Institution building in Washington, DC. His three-story Gothic Revival structure included a central dome, a stately entrance and windows throughout. It took roughly two years to complete, the stone used was native to the island and it opened to the public on December 18, 1856.

Isaac Townsend, Chairman of the Committee of the Almshouse Department for Blackwell Island, presided at the building's opening ceremony. The Smallpox Hospital, he stated, would "afford accommodations to all persons laboring under the [smallpox] disease.” He spoke to the committee’s progressive views of providing healthcare for all, not just the wealthy or entitled.

Townsend concluded boldly "the consciousness of having in our day and generation anticipated the future greatness and glory of our country, ought to form a sufficient reward for the preserving labors we bring to so satisfactory a termination. We would that every citizen might raise for himself a monument in some new institution, destined to carry down to future ages the blessings of a progressive civilization.”

Quite interestingly, Townsend also provided details of what the structure once looked like inside, before it was a ruin.

An interior corridor of the building circa 1980. By 1980 the building had already been vacant for 30 years. The interiors of the Smallpox Hospital have since been stripped of walls and architectural details.

An interior corridor of the building circa 1980. By 1980 the building had already been vacant for 30 years. The interiors of the Smallpox Hospital have since been stripped of walls and architectural details.

Two corridors cross each other on each floor, the entire length and width of the building. The staircase is of iron. The first floor is devoted to the use of the Physician, Matron, servants’ rooms, kitchen, laundry and stores. The second floor is for charity patients, and is divided into four large and four small wards. The larger are 23 feet by 15, the smaller 15 by 11, and are calculated to accommodate 50 to 60 sick persons. The ceilings throughout are sufficiently lofty. Ventilation is secured by an air duct connected with a chimney and a windsail, and communicating by flues in the walls with each ward. Other flues, connecting with the cupola, are traversed by air that has been rarified by a constant fire, and drawn from the rooms below…

New York City Lunatic Asylum - A Brief History

Building: The New York City Lunatic Asylum

Architect: Alexander Jackson Davis, restoration and adaptive reuse in 2006 by Becker + Becker

Design and Construction: 1834-1839

Location: Northern end of Roosevelt Island, New York City

Alexander Jackson Davis, Avery Library

Alexander Jackson Davis, Avery Library

The New York City Lunatic Asylum, now a residential building known as The Octagon, was designed in 1834-35 and opened in 1839.  The building’s architect was Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892), known for the United States Custom House (presently the Federal Hall National Memorial) in downtown Manhattan, among many government buildings across the United States.

According to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission report of 1976, the Lunatic Asylum “was erected in response to the desperate need for proper accommodation for the insane.” By the mid-1800s, the island was expanding with medical and institutional developments, a reflection of the City’s progressive changes toward the infirm:  the mentally ill were not meant for prisons and restraints, but could benefit from medical assistance and support by skilled practitioners.

Location of the Lunatic Asylum, now The Octagon, on Roosevelt Island

Location of the Lunatic Asylum, now The Octagon, on Roosevelt Island

In 1894, the asylum was renamed Metropolitan Hospital but was abandoned by the mid-1950s. Like the Smallpox Hospital, it immediately began to fall into great disrepair. The roof was caving in, its architectural details were shedding, and the building’s formidable dome needed repair. Despite its derelict state, in 1972 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places for, among many items, its expressive use of stone quarried from the island. In 2006, architect and developer Becker + Becker masterfully restored the building and converted it into a residential structure. A must see when visiting Roosevelt Island.

Historic American Building Survey

Today, we showcase images taken of the asylum by the Library of Congress and the Historic American Building Survey. These photographs were taken in the 1970s and reveal the building's beauty and disrepair.

Robert Moses on Roosevelt Island

Robert Moses with the United Nations in the background, Arnold Newman Archives

Robert Moses with the United Nations in the background, Arnold Newman Archives

This one photograph is considered the most famous image of New York’s master commissioner Robert Moses (1888-1981). The New York Times describes the scene. Robert Moses, “chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority — just one of his many titles — standing on a red I-beam suspended over the East River, arms on his hips, a roll of drawings in his hand: the master builder at work. Behind him, on the opposite shore, is the United Nations complex — just one of the hundreds of city-altering projects Mr. Moses captained between the 1920s and 1960s, decades in which, having consolidated political power through a genius for writing legislation, he shaped New York City.”

Robert Moses and Arnold Newman side by side, Arnold Newman Archives

Robert Moses and Arnold Newman side by side, Arnold Newman Archives

The scene was captured by famed photographer Arnold Newman (1918-2006) on a sunny Thursday afternoon in June 1959. Context shows that the photograph was taken on Roosevelt Island’s southern shore. By the late 1950s, Roosevelt Island was still known as Welfare Island and contained many more hospitals and prisons than exist today. The Smallpox Hospital had been empty for only a few years and stood with greater strength and grace. We’re pleased to share the image with you today.

Where did the red I-beam come from? An interview by Getty Images with Mr. Newman reveals how this incredible image was captured.

Excerpt from Getty Images Behind the Lens interview with Arnold Newman:

Getty Images: You photographed Robert Moses a couple of times. Can you talk about your background with Moses?

Arnold Newman: Robert Moses was a wealthy man who more or less went into politics. He wanted to rebuild New York City. He started building roads to make it easier for traffic. What he didn't envision was the fact that the more roads and bridges and things he built, the more people bought cars and made the roads even more crowded.

Down the block from where we live is Tavern on the Green and a playground where all the families on our block played with their kids. Moses decided that Tavern on the Green needed more parking space. He was going to bring in bulldozers and knock all the trees down so he could build a parking lot alongside the playground. My wife and I were very involved in a well-publicized protest that contributed to Moses backing down.

After that, I was asked to photograph him by Holiday magazine.

Getty Images: Did he know you'd been involved in the protest?

Arnold Newman: No. I was introduced to him as Arnold Newman, but he didn't make the connection.

Getty Images: Did your personal feelings about the changes he was making to New York affect the way you photographed him?

Arnold Newman: No, not really. But I did want to show him as the builder of New York. I had the idea exactly as you see it. And he was very happy with it.

We got a huge aluminum I-beam and put big heavy weights on one end so it would be sturdy. The "connector" at the end is an Arnold Newman fake. I got a big piece of cardboard and some clay and I very carefully made it to look that way, then painted it the same color we painted the I-beam. Moses is only about two-and-a-half feet off the ground and about 12 feet from the East River -- it was the angle. And it's just a single shot, un-fake. People say, "Wow, you did a great job on the computer," and I say that computers weren't invented until later.

A few years later I photographed Robert Moses in his apartment. When I arrived he said, "Oh, you're the Arnold Newman that took that picture. I'm delighted you're here." And over his fireplace is a print of the portrait I did.

At the end of the session, I said, "You know, Mr. Moses, you really don't remember me. I'm the Arnold Newman of the fight over Tavern on the Green." His face went deep red. He said, "Sit down." And for 30 minutes he tried to argue with me. I didn't argue back. I just said, "We did what we thought was right for our neighborhood and for the children." But I enjoyed watching him get upset.

Remembering Dr. Donald A. Henderson (1928 — 2016)

On Friday, August 19 Dr. Donald A. Henderson passed away. Henderson was considered a leader in the World Health Organization’s fight to eradicate smallpox. Today, the New York Times published his obituary which we have excerpted here.

Dr. Donald A. Henderson, Who Helped End Smallpox, Dies at 87

by Donald G. McNeil, Jr., The New York Times, August 21, 2016, an excerpt

Starting in 1966, Dr. Henderson, known as D. A., led the World Health Organization’s war on the smallpox virus. He achieved success astonishingly quickly. The last known case was found in a hospital cook in Somalia in 1977.

Standing left to right, Dr. Donald A. Henderson, Dr. J. Donald Millar, Dr. John J. Witte, and Dr. Leo Morris in one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) former offices. Dr. Donald A. Henderson, headed the international effort during the 1960s to eradicate smallpox. CDC

Standing left to right, Dr. Donald A. Henderson, Dr. J. Donald Millar, Dr. John J. Witte, and Dr. Leo Morris in one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) former offices. Dr. Donald A. Henderson, headed the international effort during the 1960s to eradicate smallpox. CDC

Like any war, the one against smallpox involved thousands of foot soldiers — notably outbreak tracers and vaccinators — and more than a few generals. They came from both the United States and the Soviet Union, which first called for the disease’s elimination, as well as from other nations.

But, along with Dr. William H. Foege, now an adviser to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Dr. Henderson was considered a field marshal whose combination of vision, bluntness, tenacity and political acumen carried the campaign to victory.

Smallpox, caused by the variola virus, was long one of mankind’s most terrifying scourges. Called the “red plague” or the “speckled monster,” it killed almost a third of its victims, often through pneumonia or brain inflammation. Many others were left blind from corneal ulcerations or severely disfigured by pockmarks.

It is thought to have emerged from a rodent virus more than 10,000 years ago, and signs of it are found in the mummy of Pharaoh Ramses V of Egypt. Some terrified ancient civilizations worshiped it as a deity.

It carried off many European monarchs and buried the lines of succession to thrones from England to China. Because it killed 80 percent of the American Indians who caught it, it was a major factor in the European conquest of the New World.

Three American presidents survived it: George Washington, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. In the 20th century, before it was extinguished, it was blamed for at least 300 million deaths.

The victory over smallpox proved the power of vaccine. Before the 18th century, some peoples, especially in Asia Minor and West Africa, inoculated themselves by piercing their skin with pus from victims or inhaling dried pox scabs. Although that sometimes produced a full-blown lethal infection, it killed much less often than epidemics did.

In 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner, an English physician, infected a young boy with cowpox taken from a blister on a milkmaid’s hand. Cowpox, a mild disease, protected those who had it from smallpox, and the modern vaccine era began. The word “vaccine” come from the Latin for “cow.”

Donald Ainslee Henderson was born on Sept. 7, 1928, in Lakewood, Ohio, the son of a Union Carbide engineer and a nurse. He graduated from Oberlin College, got his medical degree from the University of Rochester and did his residency at a hospital in Cooperstown, N.Y.

In 1955, he joined the Epidemic Intelligence Service, the elite disease-detective branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and in 1960, as the chief of viral disease surveillance, he devised a campaign to eliminate smallpox and control measles in Africa. Smallpox had been eliminated in much of the West shortly after World War II, but it persisted in Brazil, Africa and South Asia.

In 1966, he was sent to Geneva to run the World Health Organization’s global campaign.

Dr. Henderson working in the field. World Health Organization

Dr. Henderson working in the field. World Health Organization

“The sense at the W.H.O. was that this was an impossible mission, so they chose a young man who didn’t have a reputation to tarnish,” said Dr. Thomas V. Inglesby, the director of the U.P.M.C. Center for Health Security, where Dr. Henderson was a resident scholar at his death. “I don’t want to say as cannon fodder, but something like that.”

World Health Organization campaigns to end yellow fever and malaria had both petered out, and the organization adopted the smallpox goal only after the Soviets and the Americans insisted, Dr. Foege said. “D. A. always said they wanted an American to blame,” he added.

He was given little staff or support, but remaining on the C.D.C. payroll gave him independence.

“Although outspoken, he understood the absolute importance of diplomacy, and he had the ability to recognize who could go out in the field and get things done with a minimum of supervision,” said Dr. J. Michael Lane, another leader of the fight, now affiliated with Emory University Medical School.

Dr. Henderson spent much of his time visiting smallpox-stricken countries, some of which were also caught up in civil wars. He filed detailed progress reports and threatened to quit when W.H.O. officials asked him to tone them down, Dr. Inglesby said.

When the Soviets shipped weak vaccines, Dr. Foege said, “he went to Moscow and confronted them.”

The campaign developed a freeze-dried vaccine that could withstand tropical heat and be given either with a compressed air “injection gun” or by putting a drop on a forked needle and jabbing it just beneath the skin.

Dr. Henderson's Smallpox: The Death of a Disease was published in 2009, Bill Gates considers it one of his favorite books.

Dr. Henderson's Smallpox: The Death of a Disease was published in 2009, Bill Gates considers it one of his favorite books.

Dr. Henderson quickly realized that trying to vaccinate vast populations was futile and switched to “ring vaccination.” Dr. Foege, who is considered the father of this tactic, said it was “invented by accident” during a 1967 Nigerian outbreak when he had very little vaccine on hand.

“The first night, we asked ourselves what we would do if we were a virus bent on immortality,” he said. They radioed every local missionary asking them to send runners to find out which villages had cases. They sent 80 percent of their vaccine to those villages, using it on the family of each case and all their recent contacts. The last 20 percent went to “anywhere we thought the virus would go next” — which was mostly to market towns where farmers and hunters sold their goods.

“It took D. A. about a year to come around to ring vaccination,” Dr. Lane, who worked with Dr. Foege, said. “But once he did, he was an enthusiastic proselytizer.”

The campaign, many experts have noted, succeeded just in time. A few years later, the virus that causes AIDS spread across Africa. Because the live smallpox vaccine can grow in an immune-compromised person into a huge, rotting, ultimately fatal lesion, it would have been impossible to deploy it.

Memories of a Renwick in Washington, DC

The photograph below is especially beautiful because it depicts a stunning James Renwick, Jr. spired church and in the distance shows the US Capitol building under construction. Construction on the Capitol began in the 1793 when President Washington helped lay the cornerstone and it was completed by the year 1800. The signature 'wedding cake style' dome, however, was added many years later in the 1850s. Look closely at the photograph and you can see the Capitol's dome surrounded in construction scaffolding and topped with a crane-like armature.

US Capitol under construction and the Trinity Episcopal Church, Library of Congress

US Capitol under construction and the Trinity Episcopal Church, Library of Congress

The two buildings sit thoughtfully in the landscape. The James Renwick building was called the Trinity Episcopal Church and opened to the public in 1851. According to the Washington Post, when the Civil War broke out "the church was requisitioned for use as a hospital. A raised wooden floor was laid atop the pews and secured with nails. (The nail holes were forever visible.) Lincoln is said to have visited wounded soldiers."

The Trinity Episcopal Church had two large spires marking its main façade, Library of Congress

The Trinity Episcopal Church had two large spires marking its main façade, Library of Congress

Capital Losses by James M. Goode

Capital Losses by James M. Goode

By the early 1920s, the church was converted to a mission to serve the impoverished and by 1936, "the Episcopal Diocese of Washington agreed to lease the 14,000-square-foot property to Auto City Parking for $50,000. On June 16, 1936, the last service was conducted at the church. Demolition began three months later."

You can read more about the Renwick building in James M. Goode's Capital Losses.

The Smallpox Virus

This week we launched a new section on our website dedicated to the history of the smallpox virus. Please find it here. As the smallpox virus plays a critical part of world history, we hope to expand this section of our history site over the course of the next months.

We also want to take a moment to applaud the good work of the World Health Organization and all they have done to rid the world of this devastating infection.

Smallpox is Dead!

Smallpox is Dead!