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When a sleek horse-drawn ambulance made its debut at Bellevue Hospital in New York City in 1869, tucked beneath the driver’s seat was a quart of brandy. There were tourniquets, sponges, bandages, splints, blankets and—if you envisioned difficult customers—a straitjacket. The driver cleared traffic ahead with an imperious gong, and a doctor bounced along in back.

Removable floor slats served as a stretcher. The first such service in the world was so innovative, it was soon imitated in major cities across the country and throughout Europe. These vehicles laid a clear milestone in hospital history, but they also testify to the strict limitations of medicine in the 1870s—an era in which tobacco was used to stave off infection, and asepsis (sterilization) was tomorrow’s invention.

Bellevue’s ambulance was the brainchild of Edward B. Dalton, a staff surgeon whose administrative skills won him an appointment as Inspector of the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. Placed in charge of transport and care of the wounded, he created an efficient service for bringing casualties to field hospitals. Returning to Bellevue after the war, he recognized how a relatively lightweight vehicle (600-800 pounds) could be adapted to the streets of burgeoning New York City. The first year they operated, Bellevue ambulances answered some 1,401 calls. Two decades later the service brought in nearly 4,400 patients. Not until 1924, a generation after the arrival of the automobile, did the last horses retire, turned out to pasture at an upstate farm.

Public Hospital Firsts

First Hospital Ambulance Service
First Hospital Blood Bank
First Heart Catheterization

About America’s Essential Hospitals

America’s Essential Hospitals is the leading association and champion for hospitals and health systems dedicated to high-quality care for all, including the most vulnerable. Since 1981, America’s Essential Hospitals has initiated, advanced, and preserved programs and policies that help these hospitals ensure access to care. We support members with advocacy, policy development, research, and education.