Hospitals have a history that reaches back to ancient times. Here are six notable ones—some still fulfilling their original purpose, others with new functions—in Africa, Europe, and North America.
Earlier versions of the descriptions of these hospitals first appeared in 1001 Amazing Places You Must See Before You Die, edited by Richard Cavendish (2016). Writers’ names appear in parentheses.
Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal (Montréal, Québec, Canada)
The Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal was the first hospital established in Montréal and is one of the oldest in North America. The hospital remains one of the most important teaching hospitals in Canada, and it has been the site of many important medical advances.
The founding of the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal is intimately tied to the foundation of the city itself. On May 17, 1642, Paul de Chomedey, sieur de Maisonneuve, established a small settlement and religious mission called Ville-Marie on the site of Montréal. Among his party was a devout missionary nurse and French settler named Jeanne Mance. She set up a small hospital in the settlement in the autumn of 1642, offering care to indigenous people and settlers alike.
On October 8, 1645, the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal formally came into being. It was staffed by an order of nuns called the Religieuses Hospitalières de Saint-Joseph. In 1688 the missionary Guillaume Bailly drew up plans for a new stone hospital. From 1695 to 1734 the hospital was damaged three times by fire. In 1861 the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal was moved from its original site in the old town to its current location near Mount Royal, where it continued to expand and flourish. In 1868 it was the site of the world’s first kidney removal, and in 1959 the first-ever transplant of a femur bone took place there. The Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal also houses a museum detailing the history of the foundation. (Jacob Field)
Royal Hospital (London, England)
The Chelsea Pensioners in their blue uniforms and peaked caps—replaced on special occasions by scarlet frock coats and three-cornered cocked hats—are a familiar sight in the Chelsea area of London. There are several hundred of them, mostly age 55 and upward (in some cases well into their 90s), and one of their special occasions is a parade on Oak Apple Day every year in April when they commemorate the escape of their founder, Charles II, from the Roundheads and his hiding in the oak tree at Boscobel, Shropshire.
According to legend, the idea of creating a home for veteran soldiers came from King Charles’s mistress Nell Gwyn, but it is prosaically thought more likely that he got the idea from Les Invalides in Paris. Christopher Wren was called in to design the Royal Hospital, on the site of a theological college founded by James I. The new building was largely paid for by Stephen Fox, who had made his fortune as the government’s paymaster-general. The first pensioners arrived in 1689. Robert Adam and John Soane later made additions to the hospital, but the main buildings remain essentially Wren’s.
The spacious grounds, which once ran all the way down to the River Thames, draw crowds of visitors to the annual Chelsea Flower Show. Buried somewhere on the grounds are two 18th-century female soldiers, Christian Davies and Hannah Snell, who had successfully masqueraded as men. (Richard Cavendish)
Hôtel-Dieu (Beaune, France)
Few hospitals have the charm of Beaune’s Hôtel-Dieu, and fewer still have its staying power. This remarkable institution admitted its first patient on New Year’s Day, 1452, and signed out its last in 1971. It is now a museum, paying tribute to more than 500 years of medical care.
The Hôtel-Dieu was founded in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, the powerful chancellor of the dukes of Burgundy, and his wife, Guigone de Salins, to minister to the poor. The hospital’s exterior is quite plain, but the cobbled inner courtyard is delightful. The half-timbered structure is adorned with a fine display of polychrome tiles, formed into geometric patterns, and a series of gables topped with slender pinnacles. The long covered gallery is a practical feature, enabling the nuns to get about in bad weather, moving between the sickrooms, which were accessible only from outside. The main chamber is the Grande Salle des Pôvres (Paupers’ Ward), which boasts an ornate timbered ceiling. In this ward the beds were arranged to face the altar at the end of the room so that patients could participate in the services. There was also a smaller ward for wealthier patients (the Salle St-Hugues), and today’s visitors can admire the well-preserved kitchen and pharmacy.
For most visitors, the highlight of a visit to the Hôtel-Dieu is the Salle St-Louis, which houses Beaune’s greatest treasure—the Last Judgment altarpiece (1446–52) by Rogier van der Weyden. A magnifying glass is thoughtfully provided so that tourists can examine the torments of the damned in fine detail. (Iain Zaczek)
Les Invalides (Paris, France)
At the instigation of King Louis XIV, a hospital and home was set up for old and infirm soldiers unable to look after themselves. Its original name of L’Hôpital des Invalides was subsequently shortened to Les Invalides. In keeping with most of the Sun King’s projects, this was a “home” on a grand scale.
Les Invalides comprises a series of buildings and some 15 courtyards, the largest of which was used for military parades. The original chapel—Église St. Louis des Invalides—was the work of Libéral Bruant and his successor Jules Hardouin-Mansart, and within it the many enemy flags and standards captured by the French army were displayed. Shortly after the chapel’s completion, Louis XIV ordered the construction of a second, private chapel, Église du Dôme, distinguished by a magnificent dome based on St. Peter’s in Rome. Space was cleared for a large esplanade from the north of the main building to the Seine River and the Pont Alexandre III. Les Invalides became the burial place for many of France’s more illustrious military leaders, including Napoléon Bonaparte.
Most of the buildings are now used to house museums. The most prominent of these is the Musée de l’Armée, which features a collection of uniforms, weapons, and other military artifacts from ancient times to World War II. (Adrian Gilbert)
Lambaréné Hospital (Lambaréné, Gabon)
The town of Lambaréné, in southern Gabon, is located mainly on an island in the Ogooué River in the Central African rainforest. Visitors today are drawn there to see the hospital established by Albert Schweitzer, the theologian and medical missionary who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1952. A successful academic as a young man, Schweitzer was a devout Christian who had a “reverence for life” and vowed to devote his energies to the service of humanity. In his 30s he and his wife, Hélène, went to Lambaréné, in what was then French Equatorial Africa. They established a hospital there in 1913 in order to study the major causes of local diseases. The hostilities of World War I, however, made Schweitzer’s position as a German in French territory difficult.
With the war over, Schweitzer refounded the hospital and recruited more medical staff. Patients, who were charged only what they could afford to pay, were brought from miles around by their families, who often stayed with them. Thus, the hospital doubled as a lively village, with people cooking their food outside the huts; it had a population of about 600 at its peak. Schweitzer presided over a Christian service on Sundays, but his Christian proselytizing was taken gently. Apart from occasional visits to Europe, Schweitzer lived at the hospital for the rest of his life, until his death there in 1965.
The original hospital in Lambaréné has been replaced by a more modern one, but the old operating rooms and laboratories, the nurses’ dormitory, Schweitzer’s own rooms, with his white apron and parrot’s cage, and the living quarters for patients and their families have been preserved. (Richard Cavendish)
Hospital de Sant Pau (Barcelona, Spain)
Barcelona’s Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau is a fine example of Catalan Art Nouveau architecture built between 1901 and 1930. The hospital itself was founded in 1401, and its original medieval buildings are now an art school; the 20th-century structure is still used as a hospital.
The construction of the hospital was funded by local banker Pau Gil, who wanted Barcelona to have a modern hospital that would satisfy the contemporary requirements of the medical profession to the highest level. The original plan was to construct a complex of 48 buildings, but only 27 were built across the 33-acre (13.5-hectare) site, and the final complex contains a church, museum, and library. The three-story buildings are interspersed with gardens.
The hospital’s architectural flourishes, curvaceous forms, and use of highly coloured ceramics, mosaics, and stained glass are reminiscent of those of the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, who was responsible for the city’s La Sagrada Familia church. However, the hospital was designed by fellow Catalan architect and contemporary Lluís Domènech i Montaner and completed by his son after the architect’s death. Domènech was also a politician, and onetime professor and director of Barcelona’s school of architecture. He was highly influential in creating a Catalan style of Art Nouveau architecture, both through his own work and his prolific writing on the subject. The hospital is one of his most notable creations and contains the work of other important Catalan artists and craftsmen of the time, including sculptures by Eusebi Arnau and Pablo Gargallo and paintings and tile work by Francesc Labarta. Domènech’s inclusion of artworks and gardens in a hospital was in accordance with his belief that looking at beauty has therapeutic value. (Carol King)