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New Cornell High-Tech Campus Recalls Former Research Glory of Small New York City Island

Roosevelt Island was once home to the founders of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), not to mention important studies of malaria, frostbite and saltwater consumption
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Courtesy of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)

The aging Goldwater Memorial Hospital on Roosevelt Island—soon to be the site of Cornell University's new NYC Tech Campus—holds a significant place in 20th-century medicine.

During World War II, Goldwater researchers participated in a government program that recruited conscientious objectors from the Civilian Public Service (CPS)—set up in 1941 for draftees willing to serve their country but unwilling to engage in military service—to take part in various medical experiments. CPS volunteers became human guinea pigs. In a 100-bed Goldwater research unit, Columbia University and New York University physicians studied the effects of malaria, cold weather, starvation, arthritis, liver disease and other conditions on CPS volunteers, according to Judith Berdy, president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society and an island resident since 1977.

Known as Chronic Disease Hospital when it opened in 1939, Goldwater was renamed a few years later after its founder, then New York City Hospitals Commissioner Sigmund S. Goldwater. The hospital was built on site of the former Blackwell's Island Penitentiary, whose prisoners were relocated to Rikers Island when that prison opened in 1932. (At the time the prison was built, Roosevelt Island was known as Blackwell's Island, after the family that owned the land from 1685 to 1828.)

S. S. Goldwater's mission was to provide rehabilitation services and long-term care as well as to treat patients with chronic diseases, such as hypertension and liver-damaging hepatic cirrhosis. Goldwater, along with Bird S. Coler Hospital (built in 1952 to provide services similar to Goldwater's), located just to its north, continue to offer rehabilitation services and care for patients with, for example, Alzheimer's, AIDS and chronic diseases. (The two facilities merged in 1996.)

Several influential scientists emerged from Goldwater's research programs after the start of World War II. James Shannon, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from 1955 to 1968, led the hospital's antimalarial research group in the 1940s. Shannon gathered a group of researchers who could determine the correct dosage of the synthetic antimalarial Atabrine for U.S. soldiers serving in the Pacific. At the time, Japan occupied territory that was the chief source of supply for quinine, then the best-known treatment for malaria. (pdf)

In 1949 Shannon became director of laboratories and clinics at the newly created NIH's National Heart Institute (NHI) in Bethesda, Md. He took a number of Goldwater researchers with him, including: future Nobel Prize winner, Julius Axelrod; future chief of the NHI's Laboratory of Chemical Pharmacology, Bernard Brodie; future founding director of the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology (RIMB), Sidney Udenfriend; and future dean of Yale University School of Medicine, Robert Berliner.

In addition to the work of Shannon and his team, other Goldwater researchers worked with CPS volunteers to study a number of scientific curiosities. Between 1943 and 1946 at least 25 volunteers participated in research that examined the physiological effects of eating meals while subjected to different levels of air pressure—a prelude to the in-flight meal. In another experiment, researchers explored the best types of rations to stock on lifeboats, the effects of drinking saltwater and ways to replace evaporation of body liquids if stranded at sea. A third experiment exposed volunteers to severe cold so doctors could figure out how to prevent gangrene following frostbite.

Research was a way of life then, and it appears that it is about to become so once again.

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