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The Catholic Church and the origin of hospitals

The Catholic Church and the origin of hospitals

In my last column, I promised to write in future columns about the good Spanish friars in Philippine history whose real-life legacies have been obscured by the fictional evil Spanish friars in Jose Rizal’s novels.  Since today’s trending topic is the Covid-19 pandemic, I thought of featuring the Spanish friars who established the first hospitals in the Philippines.

But they played merely a fraction of the role the Catholic Church, in general, played in the origins of hospitals worldwide.

While the history of medicine dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, historians debate whether they had institutions resembling modern hospitals.  It is certain, though, that in Ancient Rome, the early Christians attracted attention for their care of the sick during plagues.  Saints like Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Cyprian, Saint Basil the Great, and Saint Ephrem established hospitals and cared for the sick.  The first public hospital in Rome was founded by a pious woman named Fabiola, who searched the streets for the poor ill people who needed care.   

The Knights of Saint John, a military religious order during the Crusades, are also known as “the Hospitallers” because they pioneered the modern hospital.  What they originally established as a hospice for pilgrims to Jerusalem evolved into a hospital that admitted Muslim and Jewish patients as well as Christians.  It was hygienic by medieval standards and had organized operations: physicians visited the patients twice a day, patients had two main daily meals and daily baths, while other staff performed chores like laundry. Surgeries were performed. By the thirteenth century, the Hospitallers operated around twenty hospices and leper houses.

In the Philippines, names of friars and religious orders abound in the history of medicine.  In the sixteenth century, the Hospital Real, a royal hospital, was administered by the Order of St. Francis and the Confraternity of La Misericordia, because King Philip II believed that members of the clergy could better manage it. A lay Franciscan brother, Fray Juan Clemente, treated the sick beggars who flocked to the gates of the convent. When the chapel where he housed them could not accommodate them anymore, he sought help from the community and the clergy and raised funds for a hospital which became known as the Hospital de Naturales, the predecessor of today’s Hospital de San Lazaro. The Hospitaller Order of San Juan de Dios established the Hospital de San Juan de Dios in 1643, which exists up to the present day.

And so on, and so forth.  The modern hospital is one of the Catholic Church’s gifts to the world and to the Philippines.  If not for the self-sacrificing men and women of God who dedicated themselves to carrying out Christ’s command of charity, we would have no hospitals.

(Note:  Sources for this article are How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas Woods, Jr. and A Legacy of Public Health: The Department of Health Story edited by Charity Tan.)