Harlem Hospital

The hospital played a critical role in training African American doctors and nurses—and, in 1958, saved Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after he was stabbed

By Donna Owens

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Harlem Hospital. (New York Public Library Digital Collections)

Harlem is one of America’s iconic neighborhoods. The name conjures images of jazz, the Harlem Renaissance and the Apollo Theater. There’s another institution that’s not as flashy, but that also brings instant name recognition: the Harlem Hospital Center.

The institution was a leader in educating African-American physicians and nurses at a time when hospitals were often segregated. The hospital even played an unexpected role in the Civil Rights Movement. And in the last few decades, Harlem Hospital has pioneered programs to treat impoverished residents in the surrounding community.

From its inception in 1887, the hospital has been public, with a mission of serving the needy. Its original home was a three-story Victorian mansion situated on the banks of the East River and East 120th Street. There were 54 beds for patients. The rooms were lit by gas lamps. Marble fireplaces provided heat.

In 1907, Harlem Hospital moved to the junction of Lenox Avenue and 135 Street. Today, it is a modern, sprawling medical complex that treats more than 250,000 people annually. It has a new patient care pavilion, multiple clinics, an ER and a nationally renowned trauma center.

According to New York’s department of planning, more than 40 percent of Harlem residents receive some type of income assistance and the hospital has tailored its programs to suit the urban landscape it inhabits. Programs include AIDS initiatives, a Sickle Cell Center that is among the oldest nationwide, and an asthma prevention project that’s one of only six clinical research centers in the U.S. Harlem Hospital has one of the country’s three main TB centers.

Harlem Hospital has a legacy of addressing the needs of a community whose residents are predominately “black” and “brown.” In 1917, the facility was one of the first in New York to hire African-American nurses. And in 1920, Louis T. Wright joined the outpatient department as a clinical assistant. It was the lowest-ranking job possible, but, until that time, no African-American physician had been a staff member at any city hospital in New York. Four white doctors resigned in protest. By 1923, Harlem Hospital had established a training school for “colored” health care workers.

In 1958, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was giving a speech at a Harlem bookstore when a mentally ill woman stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener. King was rushed to Harlem Hospital, where a team of doctors performed a complex procedure. A white surgeon initially received much of the credit, but history recently has been amended to honor a black surgeon, John Cordice, now 93, who played an integral role in saving the Civil Rights leader. King would later say that the stab wound was so close to his aorta that had he sneezed, his doctors told him, he would have died. Today, there’s a wing named in his honor.

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