Responding to Crisis

The Origins of the Ambulance System in 19th-Century New York

Join me, as we dig deeper into the “why” behind the ambulance-- why was the nation’s first ambulance service invented at the specific historical moment of 1869 New York City?

Byron Company (New York,  N.Y.), Museum of the City of New York. DamView&VBID=24UP1GQ64Q6F8&PN=1&WS=SearchResults.

On June 4th, 1869, the first ambulance service in the Unites States, two horse-drawn wagons out of New York’s Bellevue Hospital, started taking calls. Today, ambulances are a hallmark of urban life, and in a city like New York, they are all around us. The purpose of the ambulance feels so obvious that its creation must have been inevitable-- a service we may not even think about until we really need it.
But in 1869, the ambulance was a new, revolutionary medical service, and the demands for its creation arose because specific factors came together at a particular moment in New York City’s history. Historians look at the past this way: as contingent on multiple causes that shape where, how, and why historical events happen when they do-- not as a series of events unrolling in predetermined storylines.
The backbone of this podcast are its historical sources: municipal reports, hospital ledgers, and newspaper articles, to name a few. They are supported by the scholarly work of other historians.
I am also joined by three guest speakers, two medics and an emergency medicine physician. I was curious to hear healthcare workers’ perspectives on the state of emergency medicine today, but I also wanted to put them side by side with the stories of the first emergency healthcare workers. They show us perhaps how little has really changed in 155 years. You might find that this is a story that may be as much about class tensions and the social experience of illness and injury, as it is about the evolution of emergency medicine.

Suggested Readings

For histories of public health and medicine in the United States:

Colgrove, James Keith, Gerald E. Markowitz, and David Rosner. The Contested Boundaries of American Public Health. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2008.

Morantz-Sanchez, Regina Markell. Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Post, Carl J. Omaha Orange: A Popular History of EMS in America. Boston: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2002.

Reverby, Susan, and David Rosner. Health Care in America: Essays in Social History. Temple University Press, 1979.

Rutkow, Ira M. Seeking the Cure: A History of Medicine in America. New York, New York: Scribner, 2010.

For social histories of the urban environmental landscape of 19th-century New York City:

Ballon, Hilary, and Catherine McNeur. Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Steinberg, Theodore, and Hilary Ballon. Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

For memoirs of 19th-century ambulance surgeons:

Barringer, Emily Dunning, and Leo Hershkowitz. Bowery to Bellevue: The Story of New York’s First Woman Ambulance Surgeon. New York: W.W. Norton, 1950.

For the Civil War origins of the ambulance in the United States:

Freemon, Frank R. Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care during the American Civil War. Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998.

Rutkow, Ira M. Bleeding Blue and Gray: Civil War Surgery and the Evolution of American Medicine. New York: Random House, 2005.



This podcast was produced by Alyssa Moore, with the assistance of the New York University Archives & Public History Program.

All sound effects are credited to Epidemic Sound, a subscription-based, royalty-free music and sound library, with the exception of "The Irish, the Irish" audio recording, the ambulance siren sound effect, and "That Rag' Ragtime Two-Step" audio recording.

"The Irish, the Irish" (1904) audio recording by Henry Frantzen, Billy Murray, and Joseph Farrell is credited to the Library of Congress, National Jukebox Digital Collection. It is believed to be in the public domain under the Music Modernization Act.

The ambulance siren sound effect is credited to Alyssa Moore.

"That Rag' Ragtime Two-Step" (1908) audio recording by Arthur Pryor's Band is credited to the Library of Congress, National Jukebox Digital Collection. It is believed to be in the public domain under the Music Modernization Act.


Thank you for the assistance of Dr. Ellen Noonan, Director of the Archives and Public History Program.

Thank you to Jojo Karlin, Digital Scholarship Specialist at NYU Libraries Digital Scholarship Services.

Thank you to NYU LaGuardia Student Technology Center and Computer Lab.

Thank you to guest experts Kelly Shingledecker-Larson, Venessa Soldo-Jones, and Jeff Roberg.

Thank you to voiceover artist John Moore.

Thank you to consultant Kathy Kroshus.

Thank you to Shannon Moore.

Take Down Notice

The creator claims Fair Use of materials used in this project under Section 107 of the Copyright Act. Parties who have questions or who wish to contest the use of specific works may contact the creator.


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    Alyssa Moore
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    New York, New York
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    Alyssa Moore