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The fascinating history of Paris’ “Hostel of God”

Hôtel-Dieu de Paris
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The Hôtel-Dieu de Paris is the oldest hospital in Paris and the longest operating in the world.

Built as a symbol of charity and hospitality, the Hôtel-Dieu de Paris (Hostel of God of Paris) is the oldest operating hospital in the world and one of the first hospitals in Europe. Today, the Hôtel-Dieu is the site of an extensive clinical department for research and treatment of diabetes and endocrine illnesses, but the hospital’s extensive history can be traced back to the Middle Ages.

The Hôtel-Dieu was founded by St. Landry of Paris in 651, at which time it was the only hospital in Paris. As such, the building catered to the whole city. At its inception, the Hôtel-Dieu served both the sick and the poor, offering food and shelter as well as medical care. It would follow this tradition until the 17th century, when society’s elite began creating separate facilities for the poor.

Science Museum reports that by the 16th century, the Hôtel-Dieu could house and tend to 3,500 patients, although the building only had 1,200 beds. Patients would often have to share a bed with two or three others. Wikipedia notes that some women even had to share beds while giving birth.

By the 1700s there were just eight physicians — a large number at the time — on staff to care for all these patients; however, there were roughly 100 surgeons as well. The eight physicians were required to visit each patient twice a week, which means each doctor had to care for about 430 patients when the hospital was at capacity.

The building was damaged by fire in 1772, and was not completely restored until the reign of Napoleon. In this era, most likely due to Napoleon’s continuous military campaigns, the Hôtel-Dieu became even more taxed with patients, sometimes having 6 people to a bed. During this time, it gained the reputation of being the most unhealthy and uncomfortable hospital in France, if not all of Europe.

By the time the French Revolution came to pass, there had been several other hospitals built in Paris, which allowed the Hôtel-Dieu to limit its patient intake to one per bed. The hospital became markedly more comfortable, but as it was the most centralized medical facility in Paris, it received the most urgent accidental injury cases. This made the mortality rate of the Hôtel-Dieu remain high.

In the 1800s, a second facility was built to extend the Hôtel-Dieu’s medical endeavors on the opposite side of the Seine, next to Notre-Dame Cathedral. This building remains the first casualty center for emergency cases in Paris, with approximately 350 beds.

The Hôtel-Dieu was run exclusively by Augustinian nuns for over a millennium, but by the 18th century, doctors largely took over medical duties and the nuns served more as nurses. The Augustinian nuns remained on site until the early 20th century. While the Hôtel-Dieu is no longer under the auspices of the Catholic Church, the Catholic influence on the hospital remains ever-present in its name: The Hostel of God.

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