November 2, 2012, Friday, 306


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The Story Behind Clarkson Avenue

Introduction: Place of Interest- SUNY Downstate

The street I chose to research is Clarkson Avenue located in Brooklyn. As a freshman in the eight-year BA/MD program here at Brooklyn College, this particular street has significant meaning to me because it is the birthplace of the SUNY Downstate Medical Center. Since Clarkson Avenue is a total of twenty blocks, I set some parameters in order to focus on the immediate community surrounding SUNY Downstate between Nostrand Avenue and East 38th Street (You can view a map of this area below). Considering the fact that I will be spending a substantial amount of time there within three years, I unearthed the Center’s history and the details that accompanied its origin because I wanted to learn about the people who had inhabited the area in the past and the change in demographics over time. In fact, what I found exceeded my expectations. Not only did I get a sense of the type of environment I will encounter in the near future, but I also got a peek into the lives of those who worked behind the scenes in establishing the institution as well as those who were employed by or received treatment at the hospital. While its walls are covered by a bland beige color, the Center has so many layers to it, including a number of name changes, a financial crisis, and ultimately, a merger that made medical education, research, and practice available at Downstate today. So start peeling away!

My First Look At The Street

My first impression of Clarkson Avenue was somewhat disappointing. Given that it was a Sunday morning, the streets were deserted, save a couple of people scurrying into the small drugstores or down the stairwells to catch a train. By no means did I feel safe. Instead, I felt frighteningly alone and wondered why I had come to this place all by myself. However, I quickly jotted down the names of empty shops, vacant parking lots and a playground that I passed by on my walk to the Center. The only thing that reminded me that I was in the presence of a hospital was an ambulance that rushed by, its sirens the only sound that echoed off the graffiti-plagued brick walls. When I returned home, I felt relieved to be out of harm’s way, but I suddenly realized that I had no visual documentation of what I had seen. The next week, I put my fears aside and decided to go on a weekday to survey my street during a time when I might find people walking outside and stores open for business. Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived on Clarkson Avenue the second time around. Not only was the street busier but it also seemed more alive than before. Cars were parked along the sidewalks, and children were running around the Rolf Henry Playground, which was named in honor of Rolf Henry, a businessman and community activist who was murdered while working at a nightclub in 1993.[2] On the corner of Nostrand Avenue, a group of men lined up outside the barber shop waiting to get a hair cut, while medical school students dressed in their scrubs ordered Halal from the cart outside of the Center. Finally, I felt comfortable enough to take pictures of my surroundings and even to capture a video of the street and the building, which you can now view below.

The Story Begins...

I was granted the fortunate opportunity to explore SUNY Downstate through a wealth of information that both online sources as well as books written specifically on the founding of Downstate provided me. After simply typing “Clarkson Avenue, Brooklyn” into the Google search engine, I found an extremely helpful book preview of Brooklyn By Name, written by Benardo and Weiss. Luckily, the Brooklyn College Library catalog had an electronic copy of the book in its entirety. There, I found my street, and discovered that it was named after Matthew Clarkson, who was apparently “Flatbush’s most prominent English resident.” As a wealthy philanthropist, his property eventually became the location for St. Paul’s Church.[3] According to another web document, Clarkson was also an American Revolutionary War soldier who came from a family of Puritans.[4] While Clarkson had little to do with the development of hospitals in Brooklyn, it was interesting to dig deeper and find that Nostrand Avenue, which is one of the cross streets along Clarkson Avenue, was also logged in this book. It was claimed to be officially named after Gerret Noorstrandt, whose family was known to have relations with the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church.[5] Therefore, there is a noticeable trend that these streets were named after rather religious people who were usually affluent white males.

Matthew Clarkson
Matthew Clarkson

With a general yet brief picture of the individuals who once lived on Clarkson Avenue, I began to focus my research on the Center. I looked into the SUNY Downstate website and fortunately, under the tab entitled “About SUNY Downstate,” there was another section called “History,” which really jumpstarted my research. From this site, I learned that the SUNY Downstate Medical Center was actually a result of a merger between the Long Island College of Medicine and the State University of New York on April 5, 1950. Although the name and the building itself may be relatively new, the idea of a hospital-college affiliation can be traced all the way back to the mid-19th century. Based on what is written on the site, it all began in 1856 when two German physicians created the German General Dispensary located on Court Street, a charitable society that treated the German population in Brooklyn. However, the Dispensary eventually turned into St. John’s Hospital, in order to accommodate the incoming Irish immigrants who began to settle in the area. Preceding the Long Island-Downstate merger, St. John’s Hospital became Long Island College Hospital, wherein treating patients no longer became the sole concern, but providing instruction to medical students was also implemented. In 1930, however, the college and hospital separated, and the Long Island College of Medicine stood under its own governing board. Within the next couple of decades, the land plot for SUNY Downstate was purchased and found its home on Clarkson Avenue.[7]

German General Dispensary
German General Dispensary

While the website definitely gave me a good timeline and guided me to significant years, I found that it was mainly a consolidated summarizing tool that outlined the basic skeleton of the Center’s history; I knew that there was more to the story.

Meanwhile, I was additionally interested in the general demographics of the Flatbush community and what ethnic backgrounds hospitals in that vicinity served. Therefore, I did some searching online and found a census of the staff at the Brooklyn City Hospital in 1880. Not surprisingly, an overwhelming number of the employees there were from Ireland, and the patients listed were mostly from England, Ireland, and Holland. This site gave me access to names and occupations, birthplaces and ancestral origins. Looking at this particular catalog of patients that the census disclosed, it is evident that many of them were either lower or middle class employees. Moreover, there seems to be a trend in the ailments that were commonly treated during that time period, such as tonsillitis and rheumatism. The injuries of the male patients are not startling especially since their vocations required them to complete strenuous tasks that often led to overexertion of the body or weakening of the joints. For instance, William McFarlane (28 years old), James Ford (36 years old), Patrick Gannon (69 years old), and Leau Morrisy (38 years old) were all laborers who were sent to the hospital for either a broken leg or a broken arm. Whether these broken bones were directly caused by their work is uncertain but nevertheless, it is certainly possible, if not probable, that something they were doing on the job was dangerous enough to invoke these impairments. Another apparent trend is that eleven out of the fourteen adult female patients recorded were either labeled “servant” or “domestic,” indicating that the traditional role of women in society during the nineteenth century was most likely in the home. [9] I was actually extremely intrigued by these people and wanted to find more information about that if possible. Unfortunately, sites such as only gave me data that was already presented in the census. As I continued to conduct research, I decided not to rely only on Internet sources, but utilize all resources available to me. Therefore, I began exploring the Brooklyn College Library catalog for more references, and preferably books that had better credentials. I was astounded to find that there were two pieces of work that were written exclusively on SUNY Downstate, its beginnings, and how it was derived from the aforementioned Dispensary that I read about on the websites. Indeed, SUNY Downstate Medical Center, by Jack E. Termine, and Medical Education in Brooklyn: The First Hundred Years, 1860-1960, by Evelyn Goodwin, undoubtedly filled in the historical blanks of what I had already found.

After checking these books out, I obtained information that was relevant to the questions I presented in my proposal. For example, I wanted to know why there were two hospitals located on the same street, directly facing one another. Termine reveals that the Kings County Hospital and the adjacent Lunatic Asylum were opened in 1838, which is approximately a century before the merger contract was signed between the Long Island College of Medicine and SUNY.[10] This book examines the transformation of the Dispensary that developed into Brooklyn’s only institution for teaching medicine. I learned that the main actors who set the stage for the Dispensary and were involved in forming St. John’s Hospital were Gustav Braeunlich and Louis Bauer, both of whom were German doctors, the latter of which was a renowned orthopedic surgeon who received training in Europe. Because Bauer received his medical education in Europe, he endured a type of learning experience that he did not find in the United States, which involved the affiliation of hospitals with colleges. He deemed it essential for students to integrate their knowledge into actual practice at the bedside, and therefore, in 1858, St. John’s Hospital changed its name to Long Island College Hospital. It is amazing that “the first medical school in America to be associated with a hospital” was founded right here in the heart of Brooklyn.[11]

Kings County Medical Center
Kings County Medical Center
Long Island College Hospital
Long Island College Hospital

As I simultaneously read Goodwin’s book with Termine's, I observed that many of the facts concerning Downstate’s origins coincided with Termine’s findings. I decided to go on the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Historic Newspaper, another resource that was tremendously helpful. I performed a date search around March 1860, which is when the Long Island College Hospital reopened after financial troubles forced it to close immediately after it was opened.[14] On the issue dated March 30, 1860, I found an extensive feature article entitled, “Reopening of the Long Island College Hospital – Interesting Proceedings. – Addresses by Dr. T. L. Mason and Dr. F Hamilton.” This report on what Mason and Hamilton spoke about revealed a tone of optimism and hope for the future, that the College Hospital was here to stay and that “commencement exercises” were executed the night before. Most of the address covered the institution’s promise to advance the intellect of students and offer an environment in which scholars from all over the nation would be equally educated. What I found to be the most interesting part of Mason’s speech was that he considered medicine as “both a science and an art,” and that a medical student’s scientific knowledge ought to be accompanied by applying what is taught to real life situations. Hamilton, on the other hand, delivered a moral homily, claiming that this new college would only succeed “by a spirit of prudence, intelligence, liberality, and virtue…permitting no…selfish policy.” The article ended by stating that the audience members were impressed by how neat and orderly the Hospital appeared.[15]

Newspaper Clipping of the Reopening of Long Island College Hospital
Newspaper Clipping of the Reopening of Long Island College Hospital

Regarding the closing of the Long Island College Hospital, I felt that this was a lead that I could follow up upon in terms of fleshing out the details behind the near collapse. Fortuitously, as I was looking for more printed information on Google book search, I found History of Medicine in New York: Three Centuries of Medical Progress, by James Joseph Walsh. Walsh provided the explanation that I needed to complete the mystery surrounding the financial troubles that plagued the College Hospital. It turns out that from the onset in June, 1858, the liabilities that it took to open up the institution was piling up rather quickly and even though a campaign was formed by the twenty-five members of the Board of Regents to collect donations from citizens, such an attempt fared quite unsuccessfully. However, Dr. William H. Dudley, the President of the Collegiate Department, saved the entire College Hospital by purchasing all of its assets and continuously donating loans for two consecutive years until it was reopened and able to admit new patients. [17] Even further, I looked into the New York Times archives and found an article written on March 16, 1903 concerning J. Rogers Maxwell, the brother of a deceased member of the Board of Regents. Like Dudley, Maxwell strengthened the College Hospital by generating the funds to build two new structures in honor of his brother.[18]

However, even though the College Hospital reopened, this did not mean that it met expectations, and it specifically did not please the standards of Abraham Flexer, who was hired by the Carnegie Foundation to conduct an investigation on American medical schools. Flexer’s report exposed “such serious deficiencies in many of the schools…that about half were eventually forced to close.” While the Long Island College Hospital was not on the docking list, it was given a rating of Class B due to its inadequate supply of teachers and facilities. As a result, these criticisms coerced the College to hire more full-time professors, establish laboratory courses, and essentially raise their criteria for prospective medical students, which gained them the status of Class A four years later. [19] Therefore, without the generous contributions from members of the board and the improvements that were made after an inspection, the College Hospital would have crumbled and the seed for SUNY Downstate would not have been sown.

The Long Island College Hospital eventually split up into two governing boards, one for the college and another for the hospital in 1929, wherein the Long Island College of Medicine was born. Interestingly enough, when the United States entered World War II, it had a great impact on the College. In fact, the War Department requested that the College “turn out as many efficient doctors as possible in the shortest period of time.” As a result, many qualified doctors who completed their medical education in three years instead of four enrolled in either the Army or the Navy. Meanwhile, the president of the College, Dr. Jean A. Curran, created a “Master Plan,” which entailed the development of a new building across from the Kings County Hospital. Ultimately, Curran oversaw the construction of the College on Clarkson Avenue. [20] The “Downstate” era officially began on April 5, 1950 when a special ceremony was held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to celebrate the merger between the Long Island College of Medicine and the State University of New York.[21] While I did not stumble across any information on why Dr. Curran chose to construct a plant adjacent to the Kings County Hospital, it is reasonable to conclude that SUNY was looking for a medical facility with which to expand the teaching of medicine and research programs, and found that the College harbored great potential especially since it was located in the center of a metropolitan locale.

Dr. Robert Furchgott
Dr. Robert Furchgott

Anatomy Lab At SUNY Downstate
Anatomy Lab At SUNY Downstate

Ever since, the SUNY Downstate Medical Center has been thriving. In a community that used to be predominantly white, a 2000 census in Kings County shows that while the majority is still white (approximately a million), almost 900,000 are African American. [24] As a result, it is astonishing to observe the transformation from a dispensary that used to serve mainly Germans to a Medical Center that now provides for a flourishing black and Hispanic patient population. In 1985, the Center celebrated its 125th anniversary and it was at this time that it became formally known as the State University of New York Health Science Center at Brooklyn, a name that wholly reflects its services and activities. The newly built Health Science Education Building was an investment that allowed for the advancement of the College of Nursing as well as the College of Health Related Professions. Additionally, it offers laboratory space and also encompasses a medical library. The video on my Wiki shows the Building, which over time has become a representative “icon” of the entire SUNY Downstate Medical Center campus. [25] In recent years, Downstate has experienced a series of “firsts.” Termine’s book provides the reader with a laundry list of events that occurred within the past two decades, but only a couple stood out to me as grand milestones in Downstate history. On August 17, 1995, it held its first White Coat Ceremony for the class of 1999, wherein entering medical students took their Hippocratic oaths. Three years later, Dr. Robert Furchgott, a professor of pharmacology, became the first Nobel Laureate at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center. [26] There is no doubt that Downstate’s new and improved laboratory facilities as well as the abundant research opportunities available guided Furchgott to his novel findings on the cardiovascular system. Today, the Medical Center remains an institution that serves one of the largest and most diverse urban populations in the nation. Alas, the rankings conducted by U.S. News on the best medical schools across the nation this year did not include SUNY Downstate because most of its profile is "N/A," which most likely means that Downstate did not want to disclose much about itself.[27] But it is not surprising that physicians who have either graduated from or currently work at SUNY Downstate are regarded as some of the best in the world. Learning about how Downstate has come such a long way has made me even more excited to receive a medical education there and don a white coat of my own in 2012.

Works Cited

  1.| accessed on 5/11/2009
  2. "Rolf Henry Playground," New York City Department of Parks & Recreation (accessed March 31 2009)
  3. Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss, Brooklyn By Name: How the Neighborhoods, Streets, Parks, Bridges, and More Got Their Names (New York: NYU Press, 2006), 105.
  4. "Matthew Clarkson," Virtual American Biographies. 2000. Evisum, Inc (accessed April 1 2009)
  5. Benardo and Weiss (2006), 92.
  6.| accessed on 4/23/2009
  7. "History of SUNY Downstate," SUNY Downstate Medical Center. 29 Mar 2009 (accessed April 1 2009)
  8.| accessed on 5/11/2009
  9. “Brooklyn City Hospital," Brooklyn Genealogy Information Page. 2003. Jv Creativity (accessed April 1 2009)
  10. Jack Termine, SUNY Downstate Medical Center (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2000), 8.
  11. Termine (2000), 10-11.
  12.| accessed on 5/11/2009
  13.| accessed on 4/29/2009
  14. Termine (2000), 12.
  15. "Reopening of the Long Island College Hospital – Interesting Proceedings. – Addresses by Dr. T. L. Mason and Dr. F Hamilton," Brooklyn Eagle, March 30, 1860, 3, at HYPERLINK ""
  16.| accessed on 5/11/2009
  17. James Joseph Walsh, History of Medicine in New York: Three Centuries of Medical Progress (New York: National Americana Society, 1919), 801
  18. "Gift to Long Island College Hospital," New York Times, March 16, 1903, at HYPERLINK ""
  19. Evelyn Goodwin, Medical Education in Brooklyn: The First Hundred Years, 1860-1960 (New York: State University of New York, Downstate Medical Center, 1960), 51.
  20. Goodwin (1960), 59.
  21. Goodwin (1960), 60.
  22.| accessed on 4/29/2009
  23.| accessed on 5/11/2009
  24. “Kings County, New York,” U.S. Census Bureau; Census 2000, Summary File 1; using American FactFinder; (accessed April 27 2009)
  25. Termine (2000), 111.
  26. Termine (2000), 128.
  27. "Best Medical Schools," U.S. News & World Report (accessed May 23 2009)

About Me and SUNY Downstate Pics

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My Research Proposal

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