19th century Cancer Hospitals Were Modeled on French Castles
They had champagne parties

A castle on Central Park West was the country’s first Cancer hospital.


The building’s fairytale-like appearance, it turns out, wasn’t unusual for hospitals of the time.

Many were built like aristocratic mansions, with high walls, gatehouses, elaborate entries, and sometimes turrets, as a way of enticing wealthy patients.

During the Victorian era, cancer was regarded as a contagious disease that only afflicted the poor or untidy.

Architect Charles Haight hoped the luxurious design would lure paying customers since this cancer hospital opened its doors to all paying and non-paying patients.

The interior of the castle-like hospital featured circular rooms

The big, round turrets that make the building look like a castle were actually wards that housed patients.

The perfectly circular rooms were about 40 feet in diameter.

Doctors could easily make the rounds from bed to bed, and these circular rooms kept dirt from accumulating in corners.

An airshaft running vertically through the center of each tower — the very latest in 19th-century ventilation technology — prevented air from stagnating in the wards.

There were even Champagne parties and carriage rides in Central Park to further entice paying customers.

The building tried to make patients feel like they were going off to the French countryside.

As late as 1920, only around 15% of patients survived a cancer diagnosis for more than 2 years.

Because of this and its visibly smoking crematorium, The New York Cancer Hospital was nicknamed: The Bastille.

None of the medical staff really had any idea what they were doing.

The main treatment for cancer at the time was surgery—cutting people open and removing every lymph node possible.

Many patients came to the New York Cancer Hospital, in effect, to die, helped along by whiskey, champagne, and morphine.

(Tellingly, the hospital spent more on alcoholic beverages than on medical supplies.)

Other forms of relief included carriage rides in Central Park and Sunday services in the hospital’s Chapel of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, patron saint of the suffering.

To get people in the door, the New York Cancer Hospital tried a controversial new form of medicine: radium.

Radiation therapy, even more so than surgery, was completely unexplored.

In 1921, Marie Curie visited the New York Cancer Hospital to see the vault where the hospital kept its four grams of radium (valued at $400,000).

At the time it was the largest accumulation of radium in the world.

Dr. Edward H. Rogers, who was escorting her, assured The Times that

there is no case on record of anyone being injured in health by radium.

A lot of doctors and care workers developed cancer themselves from handling the element.

Today, the castle has been turned into 17 round, light-filled condo units, complete with a parking garage, spa, pool, and fitness center.

And maybe a few ghosts.

February 4th is International Cancer Day.


To learn more, check out the 99% Invisible post or listen to the show.

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