In the previous blog post, we discussed how the Sacra Infermeria was becoming known as one of Europe’s leading hospitals of the time, with several visitors to Malta praising its excellence in records they kept of their time in Malta. But what was special about this new medical centre?
The Infirmary accepted male patients of all classes, whether Order members, civilians, or slaves, and regardless of nationality or faith. Once admitted, they were medically examined by well-trained physicians before being washed, dressed, and placed in a bed that they did not have to share with anyone else, unlike in most other contemporaneous hospitals in Europe.
The bedding was cleaned and changed on a regular basis, while twice daily, patients were given well-prepared food, which they ate using utensils made from silver, a material known for its antibacterial qualities.
Visitors were particularly awestruck by the fact that the knights themselves alternated between caring for the sick because it was a requirement of their oaths. This included the Grand Master himself, who paid a weekly visit and gave the patients meals prepared by him while conversing with them and comforting them.
The hospital was divided into a number of separate wards, mostly in an attempt to classify the sick according to their type of illness, although social and religious considerations were also a factor: there were specific spaces for knights, convicts, galley-slaves, and even non-Christians amongst others.
1 – The Long Ward
The Sala Grande, or Long Ward, which was just for Order members and free men, was unquestionably the most impressive ward. It was one of the largest halls in Europe at the time, measuring 155 metres in length, 10.5 metres in breadth, and more than 11 metres in height. Its wooden ceiling was regarded as “a beautiful example of 16th-century timber construction,” while its floor was covered with stone pavers. In emergencies, hospital capacity may be significantly boosted by adding additional beds in the middle, running the length of the entire ward. The beds were lined up along the edges of the ward and were covered in mosquito nets in the summer and curtains in the winter. Each patient had access to a private restroom, which were concealed in nooks along the wall next to each bed. Light and air were provided through a series of windows on one side, and in the winter, tapestries were hung on the enormous, empty walls. These were changed in the summer by a collection of paintings by Mattia Preti that showed scenes from the Order’s illustrious past.
2 – The Great Magazine Ward
The Great Magazine Ward was a place located in the basement beneath the Sala Grande. It was used to keep people who rowed boats, people who were in trouble with the law, and many of the slaves who lived on the island. The slaves, whether they were Muslim or Christian, were taken care of with the same amount of attention and medical care as the people in the main hall above. However, they were given pewter utensils to eat with instead of silver, and their food was not as good as the food in the main hall but still pretty decent. Even slaves who were owned by individuals were taken care of here, and the owner paid for their treatment and food while they were here. It was important for the owners to keep their slaves healthy, so they would spend money to make sure their slaves were well taken care of.
3 – The Falanga Ward
The Falanga ward was a critical section in the hospital, used for treating patients with contagious illnesses and venereal disease, which was widespread at the time. Because mercury treatment was the recognized method of treating syphilis in those days, a special area was set up in the ward to administer this treatment. However, handling such a toxic substance was dangerous for the attendants who were tasked with the job, and patients who received the treatment were also at risk of experiencing side effects. For instance, Grand Master Perellos, who had syphilis, was treated in this ward and “cured” of the disease, but later died due to the side effects of the treatment he received.
The latest development in the long history of this historic building came only in the recent years, 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.
You can visit the museum to experience this place for yourself from Monday to Sunday between 9AM – 4PM. Book your tickets online from Buy Tickets.
Cassar, P. (1983). From The Holy Infirmary of the Knights of St John to the Mediterranean Congress Centre. Malta
Savona-Ventura, C. (1997). Outlines of Maltese Medical History. Malta: Midsea Books Ltd, p.25-33