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The Crumbling Smallpox Hospital On Roosevelt Island

Medical History | January 13, 2017

For more than 3,000 years, smallpox was an epidemic in all parts of the world, which had caused the death of more than 400,000 people a year in Europe alone. Prior to the discovery of its vaccine in 1796, smallpox killed one in ten children in Sweden and France and one in every seven in Russia; according to the World Health Organization.

Smallpox killed Louis XV of France and some European monarchs. Queen Elizabeth I harbored the disease as a child and put on heavy make-up to conceal blisters. As biological warfare during French and Indian Wars, blankets contaminated with smallpox were purposefully given to Delaware Amerindians.

Through extensive efforts for worldwide vaccination, the illness was eradicated in 1979 - the sole disease to be completely eliminated through human intervention.

Towards the end of the 1800s, efforts were exerted in Western Europe and across the United States to eradicate smallpox by universal vaccination. But prior to that, many cities constructed hospitals specifically for the treatment of smallpox sufferers.
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In New York City, at the southern tip of Blackwell’s Island (now known as Roosevelt Island) catered ferry access but maintained isolation of infected patients from the population. Better known as the Grace Church on Broadway and St. Patrick’s Cathedral along Madison Avenue, James Renwick Jr. drafted the smallpox hospital in his own Gothic Revival style.
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Between 1856 and 1875, the hospital catered to about 7,000 patients a year. By 1875, the building was transformed into a nurses’ dormitory, and this smallpox hospital was transferred to North Brothers Island, mostly because Blackwell’s Island became densely populated.
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When 1950s came, Renwick Hospital had become inoperative and was abandoned by the people, quickly falling on the blink.
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In 1975, the Landmarks Preservation Commission was interested in the dilapidated building and declared it a city landmark, along with its ruins. They augmented the walls to secure it from completely falling apart but have not reconstructed it or opened for public eye.
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Today, few of the outer walls and the foundation linger. It is already behind a fence, still on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island.
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