A Look Into the History and Evolution of WMCHealth

The onset of World War I changed healthcare in the lower Hudson Valley region forever, especially when it came to our hospitals.

If you were ill or injured at the turn of the 20th century, you were most likely cared for by your family and the town physician. If you were indigent, you went to the county almshouse. That was certainly the case in the Hudson Valley. But the onset of World War I changed health care in the lower and mid-Hudson region.

In 1914, Westchester County bought a 520-acre horse farm and built a new almshouse in a building known as Macy Pavilion. When the United States entered the war, the federal government leased various facilities such as this to serve as military hospitals to tend to the returning soldiers. In April 1917, the government paid $190,000 a year for Macy Pavilion, and designated it U.S. Base Hospital 38. Today, that Army hospital is known as Westchester Medical Center.

During the war and as late as 1919, the base hospital treated wounded soldiers evacuated from the battlefields of Europe, including those with “shell shock,” the term for what we now diagnose as post-traumatic stress disorder. Victims of the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918–1919 also filled the facility.

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Grasslands Hospital.
Grasslands Hospital.

The majority of the sick and wounded were cared for in large, 20-bed wards with a total capacity of 850, according to the Office of Medical History at the U.S. Army Medical Department. At its peak in April and May of 1919, the hospital had 1,133 soldiers in its care.

After the Army no longer needed the hospital, it was returned to the county government. But first, it received an extensive renovation. It was renamed Grasslands Hospital, situated on the Westchester County Public Reservation, which would also house other government facilities, such as the county jail, the county medical examiner, and the police and firefighters’ academy. There was also a working farm and a Potter’s Field.

In the 1920 and ‘30s, during a tuberculosis pandemic, one entire building on the campus was devoted to treating adults with TB, and one called Sunshine Cottage was dedicated to treating children. In the late ‘30s and ‘40s, Grasslands Hospital became a center for patients with other rampant illnesses of the time, including polio, scarlet fever, and diphtheria. In the 1950s, the hospital began growing into a major medical center with programs in emergency medicine, surgery, cancer, and cardiac services.

Construction of the main tower in 1977.
Construction of the main tower in 1977.

In the 1960s, Westchester County created the Department of Hospitals and voters approved building the modern Medical Center. In 1976, the hospital affiliated with New York Medical College to foster academic research and attract top medical students and physicians. Grasslands Hospital closed in 1977 and the organization officially became Westchester County Medical Center. It dropped its county affiliation and became an independent institution in 1998.

Since then, it has expanded to serve much of the Hudson Valley from not only its Westchester campus but also its affiliated hospitals and clinics up and down the Valley. In 2014, it purchased St. Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie and renamed it MidHudson Regional Hospital of Westchester Medical Center. That same year it took over management of HealthAlliance of the Hudson Valley and its facilities in Kingston and Margaretville. The next year it partnered with Bon Secours Charity Health System and added hospitals in Rockland and Orange counties into its system.

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WMC in Valhalla.
WMCHealth’s Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla.

Also in 2015, the organization created the Westchester Medical Center Health Network, or WMCHealth. Today, WMCHealth is a 1,700-bed healthcare system, headquartered in Valhalla, comprising nine hospitals on seven campuses within 6,200 square miles of the Hudson Valley. WMCHealth employs more than 13,000 people and has nearly 3,000 attending physicians. Quite a change from its humble beginning as an almshouse.

David Levine is the author of The Hudson Valley: The First 250 Million Years (now in paperback).

Related: Explore the History of Ice Yachting in the Hudson Valley

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