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The Past Goes to the Hospital

Opting out of history was never a choice for Bellevue. As New York City’s original public hospital, it has been obligated to accept whatever comes its way.

Pulitzer winner David Oshinsky’s new history of the institution, Bellevue, makes a convincing case that the hospital’s story “mirrors” that of its home. Since Bellevue first went from country estate to hospital, in 1795, the city has funneled people there who were not wanted elsewhere–from 19th century tenement dwellers to an Ebola patient in 2014. Bellevue has seen it all, and has often responded with impressive medical advances (not that you’d have wanted to end up there in the days before germ theory).

Therein lies the point Oshinsky makes skillfully, if unsubtly. Bellevue is famous for celebrity patients and headline-grabbing problems; to many, “Bellevue” means “psychiatric ward”–and not in a good way. But the urban-legend aspect ought not overshadow what can be learned from a great, enduring medical institution.

This appears in the November 21, 2016 issue of TIME.
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