In 175 years, Yale-New Haven Hospital has evolved from a shelter for the sick and homeless to a leading clinical pioneer — and an organization that can throw one hell of a party.
The hospital, Connecticut’s first and the nation’s fifth, celebrated its 175th anniversary Saturday with a black-tie gala Saturday night at the Oakdale Theater in Wallingford. Over 1,300 people attended the event, including Yale President Richard Levin, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and hospital trustee Jonathan Bush ’52, the uncle of President George W. Bush ’68.
“After 175 years of never closing the doors, never shutting the lights, it was important to celebrate this milestone,” Yale-New Haven Hospital President and CEO Joseph A. Zaccagnino said Monday.
The event was the culmination of months of community events commemorating the hospital’s long history, including the first use of chemotherapy as a cancer treatment, the first successful use of penicillin in this country and the first artificial heart.
Alms for the poor
Unlike members of the middle and upper class who could summon physicians to their homes, poverty-stricken New Haven residents and sailors passing through the city in the early 19th century lacked any health care options. If they were ill, their suffering was prolonged, their deaths miserable, and failure to quarantine them resulted in the spread of diseases such as yellow fever, malaria and smallpox.
The need arose for a charitable institution to house and treat the impoverished sick.
On May 31, 1826, the hospital now known as Yale-New Haven Hospital was established. Named the General Hospital of Connecticut, it was the first hospital in Connecticut and the fifth in the country.
From the start, its purposes were to be purely philanthropic. The citizens leading the effort declared in meeting minutes that the hospital “shall be a charitable institution, and no physician or surgeon shall receive any compensation for his services.
“Wealthy patients shall not be received to the exclusion of charity patients; and when received, shall pay to the hospital funds as the board managers shall direct.”
After raising enough funds and hiring an architect, the hospital erected its first facility in 1832. Called “Old North,” the building was constructed at the site of the current Clinic Building, facing Cedar Street.
The poor of New Haven could at last receive consistently quality health care at little or no cost.
A successful partnership
At the time of the hospital’s founding, partnerships between medical schools and hospitals for educating future doctors were unusual. But the students at the Yale School of Medicine, founded in 1810, were desperate for firsthand experience with patients.
In 1824, several students exhumed the recently-buried cadaver of a young woman from Grove Street Cemetery and brought it back to their dormitory for examination. The girl’s family, horrified upon learning what had happened, rallied a mob and threatened to punish the students and the School of Medicine.
The students grabbed rifles and barricaded themselves in their rooms until a doctor resolved the conflict by retrieving the girl’s body, sewing it back together, and reburying it.
Though the hospital and the School of Medicine eventually established a loose affiliation, the partnership was not made official until 1913.
“It really does stand the full scope of the transformation of the American hospital,” said John Warner, a professor of the history of medicine.
By the turn of the century, the hospital was not only helping the poor but also the middle class, and it was run more as a business than as a social safety net.
“It’s just remarkable that what started as a small-town almshouse has turned into one of the top medical centers in the country,” said Katherine Krauss, assistant director of public relations for Yale-New Haven Hospital. “Age alone is not what makes it great.”