Home Historical art From Home Visits to Hospitals: The Historical Society’s New Tarrytowns Healthcare Exhibition

From Home Visits to Hospitals: The Historical Society’s New Tarrytowns Healthcare Exhibition

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October 22, 2022

By Barrett Seaman—

The history of health care in the Tarrytowns is long on being cared for by beloved individual doctors, but until relatively recently short on actual brick-and-mortar medical facilities. This becomes clear to anyone who visits the Historical Society’s latest exhibit at its headquarters at the foot of Grove Street in Tarrytown.

A fascinating collection of photos, medical paraphernalia and nursing uniforms curated by Society President Sara Marcia, with the help of a team of volunteers, brings to life a world of solo practitioners, who treated their patients mainly in the family home. But it also chronicles the pioneering efforts of concerned citizens to build appropriate medical facilities to serve an ever-growing population. The end result is Phelps Hospital.

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From the Revolution to most of the 19e century, medical care in river towns was provided by individual physicians. As a physician, Thomas H. Smith nursed the bodies of the residents of what was then only Greenburgh, but he also ministered to their souls as an itinerant preacher. Dr. Horace Carruthers, whose home was in what is now Patriots Park, had Washington Irving as a patient. Dr. James Scribner was so respected as a doctor that he was elected village president in 1872. Dr. John Robertson treated not only immigrants but also oil magnates like John Archbold and William Rockefeller.

One man Sara Mascia called “probably the most influential community doctor” was Dr. Richard Coutant, originally from Tarrytown, who returned to the village after the Civil War to open a practice. According to Mascia, Coutant and others recognized that a well-equipped healthcare facility was needed to keep up with rapidly changing medical science as well as community needs – “where patients could recover from surgery or serious illness in a controlled environment,” as Mascia said at a reception before the exhibit opened.

Sara Mascia has more than a historical interest invested in the exhibition. His father, Dr. Armond Mascia, was a pediatrician who regularly made house calls for his patients, but was also part of the transition in the 1940s and 1950s from solo practice to organized group practice with the benefit priceless of a real working hospital.

Dr Armond Mascia and nurse with a young patient

The first establishment was a single rented room in the former Coenhoven Inn at the corner of Main Street and Broadway, established in 1889 by a group of women who had formed the Provident Association of Tarrytown. After about a year in which 39 patients were treated, the Association disbanded. It was succeeded by the Tarrytown Hospital Association in 1892, a group which raised funds to buy a small house on Wood Court, near the base of Wildey Street. Richard Coutant was the first chief of staff, assisted by Catharine Halliday as matron.

This early Tarrytown hospital averaged three patients a day in its early years, served by a horse-drawn ambulance.

Late 18th/early 19th century doctor’s medicine cabinet

In 1908, a fundraising campaign led to the construction of a new $80,000 hospital which opened at the end of Wood Court in 1911. Over the next three decades, the establishment of Wood Court strived to provide care for a growing population. In 1947, staff at Tarrytown Hospital and Ossining Hospital urged their respective boards to merge and create a larger medical center. Nearly a decade later, Phelps Memorial Hospital opened on land donated by the Phelps-James estate, with a healthy contribution from the Rockefeller family. There were 188 beds, 27 bassinets and no debt.

A nurse administers anesthesia.

Few current Tarrytown residents remember the old Wood Court Hospital, but the one who does now is Phelps Community Council Chairman Kevin Plunkett. As a young boy he needed to have his tonsils removed and needed surgery at Wood Court. Frightened and in tears, he tells the nurse who has come to take him to the austere operating room that he will not go. “Another nurse came over and said, ‘Kevin would you like to get some ice cream?’ “, he recalls. “What she didn’t say was that we were going to stop by the operating room.”

Today, there are dozens of operating rooms, including 17 day surgery rooms, a full range of state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment, and 238 beds in the modern and growing Phelps Memorial Hospital. Phelps is now part of the Northwell Health System, but continues to operate as a community hospital serving river towns and Hudson Valley communities.

The Historical Society’s exhibit at its One Grove Street headquarters is open to the public Thursdays and Saturdays from 2:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. or by appointment. Along with photographs of doctors, nurses and buildings, the exhibit features medical equipment and documents dating back more than a century.

Phelps Memorial Hospital opening day, January 1956

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