by Ted Smyth, Glucksman Ireland House, New York University
© Ted Smyth 2018. All rights reserved.
In 1851, the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP) appointed a committee to “enquire what measures, if any, should be adopted to supply the indigent sick in the northeastern part of (New York) city with medicines and medical attention.” The need was clear. In 1852, the first Annual Report of the Visiting Physicians of the Demilt Dispensary noted that in 1830 three dispensaries in New York City serviced a population of 210,000, and twenty years later, with a population of 515,000 there were still only three dispensaries. The Report stated that the Dispensary’s object was not merely to alleviate the miseries of poverty, “but to carry help and comfort to sick, suffering, helpless poverty, to banish disease, and to guard the poor against the ravages of pestilence when the awful scourge comes upon them.” The area to be serviced in New York City was that bounded by 4th Avenue and the East River, and between 14th Street and 40th Street, covering the new 18th and 21st Wards.
Until the Dispensary building was completed, the “sick poor” were attended at their own residences or at the office of a physician. The organization’s President was Frederick E. Mather and the First Vice President was John Campbell, with many officers and doctors forming a series of committees. The Demilt Dispensary building was completed in 1852 on the northwest corner of 23rd Street at 371 Second Avenue, at a cost, including land, of about $30,000. The address became 245 East 23rd street after 1861 when Manhattan’s cross-street number system was changed. The institution was “denominated the ‘Demilt Dispensary,’ in consequence of the munificent donation of five thousand dollars, from a benevolent gentleman, ‘as one of the Residuary Legatees of the Demilt family.'”
The second Annual Report of the Visiting Physicians of the Demilt Dispensary reported that during 1853 it treated 917 males and 1,280 females. Of these, 1,280 were natives and 992 foreigners. Children represented the majority of patients at 1,376, and total visits amounted to 11,336. The most common fatal disease for those treated was cholera, followed by consumption.
According Trow’s 1857 Directory for New York City, the Dispensary was open daily, except Sundays, from 9am to 5pm October 1 to March 1. Otherwise it was open 8am to 6pm. Medical attendance was from 9am to 4pm. Sunday hours were 9 to 10am and 1 to 2pm.
As a private organization the Demilt Dispensary constantly sought funding to maintain its services. In 1865, the New York Times reported that “this well-known and praiseworthy charity (which) has for the last thirteen or fourteen years…furnished medical and surgical aid and medicines gratuitously to the sick poor of the Eighteenth and Twentieth Wards” was in need of “liberal contributions” to avoid restricting its operations. The cause for the financial distress was the record number of patients treated in 1865: 21,161 US-born and 16,444 foreign-born, including 9,102 vaccinations. Every year up to 50,000 prescriptions might be issued.
The Dispensary continued to extend its services and by the early 1890s, it was treating upwards of 30,000 cases yearly and dispensing nearly 70,000 prescriptions.
In 1921, the Demilt Dispensary finally closed its doors on East 23rd street when it was consolidated with Park Hospital and the Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men, on the site of Park Hospital, to form Reconstruction Hospital.
 Annual Report of Demilt Dispensary (New York: Wm. O. Bryant & Co., 1852)
 Columbia University Libraries, https://css.cul.columbia.edu/catalog/rbml_css_0215
 Ibid., quoting 1852 Demilt Annual Report
 Annual Report of Demilt Dispensary, 1853.
 The Demilt Dispensary, New York Times, January 25, 1865.
 Annual Report of Demilt Dispensary, 1870.
 Ibid, quoting King’s Handbook of New York, circa 1893, 488.
 “To Seek $1,500,000 for Bigger Hospital,” New York Times, January 1, 1922.