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First Hospital Ambulance Service


First Hospital Ambulance, Bellevue Hospital Center, 1869.

When a sleek, horse-drawn ambulance made its debut at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital 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.

The ambulance used by Bellevue, now part of America’s Essential Hospitals member NYC Health + Hospitals, 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, Dalton 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.

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