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Religious orders and hospitals

Monks and nuns nursing patients at the Hotel Dieu, Paris, 1500s.

Monks and nuns nursing patients at the Hotel Dieu, Paris, 1500s.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

The religious origins of European hospitals are well known. Founded by religious orders and often staffed by nuns, early hospitals were cruciform in their construction. Many had elaborate chapels attached to them, even during the 1800s. This has led them to be described as reforming institutions. Others had prayers and sermons read to patients in the wards by visiting clergymen. Often the only reading materials available to the patients were Bibles and religious tracts. The walls were also regularly decorated with religious scenes and the obligatory crucifix.

Over the course of the 1800s, hospitals in many countries became more secular in nature. Patients at many British hospitals were finally permitted other reading materials, many Victorian hospitals having originally banned newspapers. Entertainment for the patients also became less overtly religious.

Some hospitals were slower to change. Lock, or venereal, hospitals are one example. At these specialist hospitals, members of the public entering the wards to read religious texts to patients was still common into the 1900s. This only added to the stigma associated with venereal disease.

Mission hospitals keep this religious tradition alive. They also continue to play an important part in health-care provision in a number of developing countries, not least in many parts of Africa. In some countries religious missions are the main suppliers of health care. In Kenya, for example, mission hospitals continue to provide the bulk of medical care to the rural population. Some, therefore, feel that mission hospitals contribute significantly to the advancement of developing countries. Others regard them as agents of imperialism and social control.



O P Grell, Medicine and Religion in Enlightenment Europe (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007)

D Hardiman, Healing Bodies, Saving Souls: Medical Missions in Asia and Africa (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006)