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Pulse of Longwood takes you inside one of the nation’s largest hubs of hospitals and biomedical research.

Meet the Longwood Medical Area, Boston’s city-within-a-city, one of the densest, most thriving medical communities in the country. If you haven’t heard of it, or even if you have, here are five things you should know.

So close, yet so far

Unlike at the sprawling Texas Medical Center or North Carolina’s Research Triangle, in Longwood some of the country’s top-ranking institutions — four teaching hospitals, a medical school, and a diabetes research center and clinic — are crammed into one 213-acre neighborhood, along with a state mental health clinic and a slew of colleges and biomedical firms. You can walk between the hospitals and labs through a series of tunnels and bridges.

Five of those institutions — Boston Children’s Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Joslin Diabetes Center — all share an affiliation with Harvard Medical School, which relies on them to train its students. Their specialties are neatly complementary.


But in many ways, Longwood is “the most siloed place in the world,” observed Dr. Lee Nadler, a Harvard Medical School dean. Many researchers stay put in their labs. Except for at the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, they don’t mingle much.

Dr. Kenneth Mandl, who directs the computational health informatics program at Children’s, offered this counterintuitive theory: The farther away you are from Longwood, the more likely you are to see your colleagues. Case in point: He went months without seeing a close colleague at the hospital — until they bumped into each other while floating in the Dead Sea.


Raking in research dollars

For such a small place, Longwood gobbles up a tremendous amount of federal research money.

Longwood hospitals see 2.6 million patient visits a year. That’s about a third of the patient flow at Texas Medical Center, which claims to be the largest medical complex in the world. But Longwood draws more than twice as much National Institutes of Health money as its southern counterpart.

Longwood institutions, including Harvard’s medical, dental, and public health schools, raked in over $1 billion from the NIH last fiscal year. Longwood is the largest engine that has propelled Boston to rank as the top recipient of NIH money for 20 years in a row. (Massachusetts General Hospital, which is not in Longwood, played a big part, too.)

If Longwood were a state, it would be ranked eighth in the nation in NIH funding.

A long history of breakthroughs

Stunning medical advances have been pouring out of Longwood for a hundred years: the first human ovum fertilized in a test tube. The first successful human organ transplant, a kidney transferred from one man to his dying twin. The first use of electric current to reset the rhythm of a heart.

In 2001 doctors at the Brigham and Children’s performed a first-of-its-kind heart surgery on a fetus while it was still in its mother’s womb.

Four years ago, a medical team at the Brigham performed the nation’s first full face transplant. Today, seven people have entered the hospital and left with completely new faces.

Legends of Longwood’s medical history live on in murals and timelines along hospital walls, and in the skeletons and barbaric tools of the Warren Anatomical Museum. That’s where you’ll find the skull of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker whose head was skewered by a 13-pound iron bar in 1848, and lived on to become neuroscience’s most famous patient.

Zebra fish
AFP/Getty Images

From cows to zebrafish

If you walked down Longwood Avenue a hundred years ago, you would have found Children’s Hospital surrounded by marshland — and cows. The cows, whose stomping ground is now the main corridor of the neighborhood, weren’t just passing through. They were pumping out milk for kids at the hospital, so they didn’t get sick from contaminated bottled milk.

The cows are long gone: They left before 1930, according to Children’s archivist Alina Morris.

These days, most of the animals are indoors: mice, rats, rabbits, pigs, and lots of zebrafish. Zebrafish make good scientific subjects because they lay hundreds of embryos per week, and those embryos are transparent, so scientists can track the effects of genetic manipulation as they grow.

Dr. Leonard Zon, a pioneer in zebrafish research who directs the stem cell program at Children’s, estimated there are about 400,000 zebrafish swimming around in more than 15 labs at Harvard.

Not slowing down

These days, a whopping 110,800 commuters, visitors, and patients descend on Longwood each day, according to the Medical Academic and Scientific Community Organization, the neighborhood organization. Traffic is a nightmare, and parking is reserved for patients and VIPs, so commuters stream in on trains, bikes, buses, and shuttles from faraway parking lots.

The crowds aren’t going away: Longwood is projected to add 13,200 employees by 2030, according to MASCO. New buildings, including a Merck pharmaceutical outpost and the 18-story Center for Life Science building, keep popping up, pushing the limits of how high medical lab buildings can go.

Dr. John Halamka, a farmer who’s also the chief information officer at Beth Israel Deaconess, said the environment has changed since he started working in Longwood 20 years ago.

“We built so much real estate, I swear we’re getting new microclimates,” with vigorous wind and lots more shade, he said.

Hospital bigwigs are keen to build more.

“Longwood is not overdeveloped, it’s under-demolished,” said Charles Weinstein, vice president for real estate at Children’s Hospital, at a recent downtown forum. There are too many buildings that are just three stories tall, he said. There is space for further expansion, he said, if you “get rid of all these old, small buildings that really have no place in Longwood anymore.”