New York Eye and Ear Infirmary

(Corner of Second avenue and Thirteenth street)

The disorders of the eye and its appendages are more numerous and diversified than those of any other member of the human body, and some of the operations for its relief require the nicest combinations of delicacy and skill. Whatever knowledge the ancients may have possessed of this subject, certain it is that the medical fraternity, during the middle ages, walked in profound darkness. It was not until the latter part of the seventeenth century that the anatomy of the eye was well understood. The German surgeons have the honor of rescuing from deep obscurity the science of ophthalmic surgery. In 1773 Barthe first founded the Vienna School, which has since become so celebrated. The impulse given to the subject in Germany was soon communicated to England, and in 1804 Mr. Sanders founded the London Eye Infirmary, whence" have sprung similar charities in various parts of Great Britain and the Continent.

In 1816 Edward Delafield and John K. Rodgers, graduates of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New York City, sailed for Europe to improve themselves in the knowledge of their profession. They had attended the usual course of lectures, each had practiced a year in the New York Hospital, but as the institutions of our country were yet in their infancy they hoped by foreign study to render themselves better fitted for the responsible duties of the medical profession. While pursuing their studies in London they were induced to become pupils in the recently established Eye Infirmary. They had given the usual attention to the study of the treatment of the eye, but soon discovered that they and their American instructors were profoundly ignorant of the whole subject. They instantly saw that here was an open field of great usefulness wholly untrodden in their own country, and they devoted themselves with untiring assiduity to this new branch of knowledge. Returning in 1818, they nobly resolved to establish an Infirmary. They were both young, possessed little means, had no reputation as physicians, yet in August, 1820, they hired two rooms on the second floor at No. 45 Chatham street, and publicly announced that on certain days and hours of each week indigent persons afflicted with diseases of the eyes would be gratuitously treated, and furnished with all necessary medical appliances. "What was undertaken as an experiment soon proved a success, for in less than seven months four hundred and thirty-six patients had applied and received treatment, and many astonishing recoveries had occurred. Having thus demonstrated the feasibility and utility of the undertaking, they now resolved to bring the matter before the public, and ask for the means to really found an Infirmary. A public meeting convened at the City Hotel on the 9th of March, 1821, to consider this subject, was eminently successful. A permanent organization was effected, and a committee raised to solicit subscriptions and temporarily conduct the Institution.

The members of the society were denominated governors, and they resolved that the payment of forty dollars or upwards should constitute one a governor for life, or the payment of five dollars per annum a yearly governor, with the privilege of sending two patients to the Infirmary for treatment at all times.

The operations of the society were continued in the same rooms until 1824:, when a part of the old Marine Hospital was rented for the sum of $500 per annum. The act of incorporation passed the Legislature March 29th, 1822, and the sum of $1,000 was granted in each of the two following years. In 1845 the accommodations at the Hospital being totally inadequate, a three-story house at No. 97 Mercer street was purchased and fitted up for the Infirmary. But after a few years the number of patients became so great that it became manifest that a larger building must be obtained. In 1854 the Legislature, in answer to repeated memorials, granted the sum of * $10,000, on condition that $20,000 more should be raised by the directors and expended in building. Over $30,000 were soon subscribed by the friends of the enterprise, and in 1857 the present building was erected. It stands on the north-east corner of Second avenue and Thirteenth street, is a handsome four-story brown stone, with appropriate apartments and space for seventy-five beds for patients.

It was a source of deep mortification to the prime movers in this undertaking, who had introduced this system into the country, and had planted themselves in its largest and wealthiest city, to see two kindred institutions securely founded and richly endowed, one in Boston and the other in Philadelphia, while they were left to toil on in comparative poverty and obscurity for six and thirty years. On their entrance into the new building the society entered upon a new era. Its enlarged accommodations for patients from abroad greatly swelled the numbers of those who sought its remedies. Previous to 1855, there had been treated 48,528 patients, but during the last sixteen years no less than 98,875 have sought relief at the Infirmary. An army, in all, of 147,403. The Infirmary is open daily, Sunday excepted, from twelve o'clock to one and a half, for the gratuitous treatment of eye patients ; and diseases of the ear are treated every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, from two o'clock to four. The poor from all parts of the State are entitled to its privileges. The cost of the building, with the site on which it stands, has amounted to $65,000, and is now valued at nearly twice that amount. At its opening there remained a debt upon it of $10,000. This has since been removed, and commendable exertions have since been made by the directors and surgeons to secure an adequate endowment, to establish free beds, and to furnish the patients gratuitously with glasses, artificial eyes when needed, etc.

The State long since withdrew all pecuniary support, though patients are freely received from all parts of it, and the Common Council grants it but $1,000 per annum. 'Of the 9,290 treated during 1870, 7,387 were for diseases of the eye, and 1,903 for diseases of the ear. Of the 415 patients kept in the Infirmary, 203 were at the expense of the Institution.

The endowment fund, contributed by Mr Grosvenor, Mr. Burrall, Dr. Harsen, Chauncey and Henry Rose, Madame De Pon, Mr. Alstyne, and others, has been carefully invested and now yields an income of $11,000.

Though several new institutions of this kind have recently been established in this city and Brooklyn, the surging tide of sufferers has not been diverted from this old and well- known Bethesda.

This society has certainly accomplished an excellent work, and is justly entitled to the lasting gratitude of the public. Its whole history has been an example of the most rigid economy and self-sacrifice, but the fruit of its benevolent exertion has been rich and abundant. Frequently has the unwilling occupant of the almshouse recovered through its exertions. His family, long scattered or consigned to a home of wretchedness, has been collected and raised by industry to comfort and independence. Here the infant, born blind, has first opened its eyes upon its mother's face, and the few remaining days of the old man have been cheered by the returning light of day. From these rooms the broken-down student has returned to his books, and the lone female to her employment, happy in the recovery of sight, the loss of which made poverty a double calamity. Here many an anxious mother has shed tears of joy over the recovery of a long- afflicted child.

 If it is praiseworthy to educate and support the blind, is it less so to prevent blindness ? Surely it is much cheaper to prevent pauperism than to support it, all other considerations ignored. The benefits accruing to the whole country, through the better education of the medical fraternity, is not the least advantage to be considered from the founding of this Institution. The knowledge acquired has been freely offered to humanity at large. Clinical teaching and courses of lectures have been regularly given at the Infirmary for years, and every facility afforded to all medical students to perfect themselves in this branch of surgery; thus affording the public a better protection against the mistakes and unskillfulness of their medical advisers. Dr. Edward Delafield, its chief founder, whose name and toils have been conspicuous in nearly every part of its history, still survives, to mark with peculiar satisfaction the increasing success of this cherished institution.

Website: The History
Article Name: New York Eye and Ear Infirmary
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: New York and its Institutions, 1609-1873 by Rev. J.F. Richmond; publisher: E.B. Treat, 805 Broadway-New York (1872)
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