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Thu, 03.03.1892

The Sydenham Hospital Opens

Sydenham Hospital

*Sydenham Hospital is celebrated on this date in 1892.  This private hospital was founded in a Harlem brownstone, serving mostly African American patients.  

Sydenham began as a healthcare facility in Harlem, located at 124 Street and Manhattan Avenue.  Around 1924 the hospital moved to a new 200-bed building at the intersection of West 125 Street and Lenox Avenue. In 1944 the staff doctors were all white despite serving a mostly Black community. Soon after, it was the first hospital to have a fully desegregated interracial policy, with six Black Trustees and twenty Blacks on staff. It was New York City's first full-service hospital to hire Black doctors and later became known for hiring Black doctors and nurses when other nearby hospitals would not.  

Because of its relatively small size, Sydenham continually faced more financial problems than most private hospitals, and on March 3, 1949, control of it was taken by New York City. It became part of the municipal hospital system. However, the city continued to allow Sydenham's private physicians to hospitalize their patients in a new practice for the municipal hospital system. In 1971 Florence Gaynor became the first African American woman to head a major teaching hospital, taking over as Executive Director of Sydenham Hospital during a financial crisis. She also developed a Family Care Center that included a Sickle Cell Anemia clinic.  

Soon after Mayor Ed Koch took office in 1977, during severe economic troubles for New York City, he announced an additional 10% reduction in funding for municipal hospitals, and Metropolitan Hospital (in East Harlem), and Sydenham were slated for closure. There was community support from both hospitals. In January 1979, the Committee for Interns and Residents staged a one-day walkout of doctors at municipal hospitals to protest the cuts. They were often supported on picket lines by hospital workers from District Council 37 of AFSCME. 

A “Coalition to Save Sydenham” supported legal efforts to stop the closing, organized public rallies and lobbying of elected officials, and helped publicize research to demonstrate the need for the hospital. (In 1977, the federal government designated Harlem a “medically underserved area, with the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano calling it a “health disaster area.”) While a diminished Metropolitan Hospital was saved as an “Outpatient Demonstration:” project, the city insisted that Sydenham be closed. In the spring of 1980, as Sydenham was about to be shut down, angry demonstrators stormed the hospital. They initiated an occupation that lasted ten days under a so-called “People’s Administration.” 

Despite the added publicity, this brought, in 1980, Sydenham’s doors were closed for good.  Although unsuccessful, the demonstrations raised the profile of Sydenham among people who had never heard of the hospital. Nurse and Health Activist Ebun Adelona said the closure of Sydenham became a “symbol” for Black people throughout New York to revitalize communities, improve health, and exercise political power. In 1998 Sharon Lerner recalled that “The Sydenham blunder paved the way for today's more clandestine approach to hospital downsizing, in which the city reduces its contribution to the Health and Hospitals Corporation and the agency is thereby 'forced' to make cuts to the public hospitals.”  

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