The Sacra Infermeria was built during the rule of the Order of Saint John. Eventually the Infermeria became one of the finest hospitals in Europe. Furthermore, in the year 1676, Grand Master Nicolás Cotoner erected the School of Anatomy and Surgery. By time the school also continued to enhance and by the 18th Century Malta had its first Professor of Anatomy.
Under his leadership the School of Anatomy and Surgery would go on to produce a number of exceptional pupils, including the renowned surgeon Michelangelo Grima, who had followed a similar career path to Henin. Just like Henin, Grima started at an early age and studied at the same hospital in Florence, and later on also became the Head of Anatomy and Surgery. He also considered Henin as his mentor, and later collected some of his former teacher’s unpublished notes. In particular, he praised his exceptional skills as a very talented dissector.
Apart from his role as a Professor of Anatomy, Henin also practised at the Sacra Infermeria. During his time, he was considered to be particularly adept at ophthalmic surgery and trepanning of the skull in cases of depressed fractures of the cranium. So much so, that apart from his regular salary of 12 scudi per month, he was also given an additional 10 scudi for every operation of lithotomy. This is a highly complex procedure to extract bladder stones through an incision in the perineum. Apart from this he was also given an additional 5 scudi for every cataract operation. However, this was only granted if the operation was successful.
His early successes and new surgery ideas made him one of the most prominent young surgeons of the time, and his excellent reputation soon spread all over Europe. Patients from various countries also came to Malta in order to consult him, as well as have cataracts and stones removed by him. One particular patient from Messina was also successfully operated on for a tumour in his back.
Henin was also the president of the Maltese Medical Academy between 1725 and 1754, for which he wrote and read several papers on various medical topics. These documentations remained unpublished since he became ill. His only known publication is Observatio Chirurgico-anatomica in Nosocomio S. Joannis Hyerosolymitano, published in Messina in 1748. The publication dealt with the successful removal of a tumour of the back in two minutes’ time. Several manuscript notes belonging to him were collected by his previously mentioned student Michelangelo Grima, however, these were unfortunately lost. Henin stopped working in 1753 due to mental health problems and passed away the following year on the 15th of October 1754, at the age of 58.
Throughout his career Henin laid the basis of modern practical medicine at the Medical School of Malta. He also reorganised anatomical teaching, and helped bring renown to the Sacra Infermeria School of Anatomy and Surgery, thus truly earning himself the title of the “Father of Anatomy in Malta”.
The latest development in the long history of the Sacra Infermeria came only last year, when a new virtual museum, titled ‘Reliving The Sacra Infermeria’, was inaugurated. The idea of a virtual museum, which brings together history and technology, was brought about by the need to satisfy visitors’ curiosity about the building’s former history without interrupting ongoing conferences or theatre performances that are regularly held here. Now, by downloading a mobile application that makes use of augmented reality, one can once more relive the building’s former days as a hospital.
Re-Living the Sacra Infermeria is a project co-financed through the European Regional Development Fund.
Cassar, P. (1983). From The Holy Infirmary of the Knights of St John to the Mediterranean Congress Centre. Malta
Cassar, P. (1969). Malta and its Medical School. Chest-piece, 3(1), 11-15.
Grima, J. F. (2018, December 16). The Origins of Malta’s Medical School – December 19, 1676. The Sunday Times of Malta, pp. 60-61.
Rozena, S. Disease and Dissection: A History of Surgery in Malta. Museum of the Order of St. John. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://museumstjohn.org.uk/disease-and-dissection-a-history-of-surgery-in-malta/