Over the more than 100 years of its existence, the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at Mount Sinai has experienced several shifts in direction, which are literally spelled out in the Department’s changing name:
1910: Department of Physical Therapy
1947: Department of Physical Medicine
1959: Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
1968: Department of Rehabilitation Medicine
The Department that was established on December 5, 1910, within the Mount Sinai Hospital Dispensary, was organized around the concept of “physical therapy”. And, in those days all physical therapists were physicians by training. According to Heinrich F. Wolf, MD, the first departmental chief, “When opened, it consisted of two small rooms and contained only a few hot air apparatuses and a galvanic-faradic machine.”
At that time, physical therapy referred to physical procedures such as massage and application of hot air. Thus, the Department’s defining characteristic was its sole focus on the use of physical agents to fight disease and disability, rather than drugs or surgical procedures, the latter being tools employed within the other medical specialties of the hospital.
The Department was one of the first, if not the first, established in the U.S. at a major hospital. In its first year, the Department of Physical Therapy applied nearly 6,000 treatments to 640 patients. In reporting on clinical outcomes, Dr. Wolf wrote that he did so “to show how necessary it is to place such a department under the responsible direction of a physician instead of entrusting it to a layman.”
In 1947, the “therapy” in the Department’s name was replaced by “medicine.” This was largely a result of the movement amongst U.S. physicians of physical therapy toward creating the specialty of physical medicine. In fact, the second Departmental director, William Bierman, MD, who had been appointed in 1935, was a leader in moving towards medical specialization. Under Dr. Bierman’s leadership, the Department expanded and opened new quarters in the hospital, with a well-equipped gym, hydrotherapy facilities, a wide range of devices for electromagnetic therapies and three rooms used for fever therapy. Dr. Bierman and other members of the department engaged in research focused on diathermy, fever therapy and other physical agents. He became internationally renowned for his expertise and was a national leader in the field.
The third departmental name change occurred in 1959, with the appointment of Lawrence A. Wisham, MD, as the Department’s third director. “Rehabilitation” was added to “physical medicine,” acknowledging the nation-wide shift towards a more comprehensive approach, which was largely triggered by changes in how injured soldiers were treated during and after World War II.
In 1968 the Department’s name was transformed into the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine – completely removing all reference to the physical agents that had defined it at its start. However, truly comprehensive inpatient and outpatient programs were not initiated until July 1986, with the appointment of Kristjan T. Ragnarsson, MD, as its chair.
The many elements of the Department’s comprehensive rehabilitation program initiated by Dr. Ragnarsson are described throughout this website. Each of these elements embody the department’s current commitment to the goal of aiding people with disabling conditions to optimize their mobility and self-care, family and community participation, and quality of life.
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