In our previous article, we explored the fascinating history of the Sacra Infermeria, from its occupancy by the French to its transformation into the Station Hospital under British rule. Today, we continue our journey through time and uncover the pivotal role that this historic building played in some of the most significant global events of the 19th and 20th centuries, including the Crimean War, the spread of brucellosis, and World War I.
The Crimean War
The first major conflict in which the Station Hospital would prove its worth was the Crimean War between 1854-56. Shortly after the commencement of hostilities, and in anticipation that Malta could be used for the evacuation of British wounded soldiers, orders were received to prepare enough hospital beds for several thousand men. The first batch of wounded troops from Crimea arrived in November 1854. By this time, the wine stores had been cleared from the Long Ward to make room for the constant flow of wounded. Several Maltese doctors are known to have joined British Army surgeons in the Crimean battlefields and hospitals, while students of medicine and surgery at the University of Malta were given permission to attend the Station Hospital to enhance their training whilst assisting in the treatment of casualties.
In the late 19th century, the Station Hospital in Malta was the site of an important scientific discovery. Mediterranean Fever, a disease that was prevalent in the region, had baffled doctors for years as to its cause. Surgeon-Major David Bruce, later Sir David Bruce, was working in a small laboratory in the Station Hospital when he made a breakthrough discovery in 1887. He found the microbe that caused the fever in the spleen of some British soldiers, which was a significant step towards understanding the disease. However, it remained unclear how the infection was being transmitted. Several years later, Sir Temi Zammit, a prominent Maltese doctor and archaeologist, solved the mystery by discovering that the disease was originating from unpasteurised goats’ milk. Today, the disease is known as Undulant Fever or Brucellosis, in recognition of the pioneering work of Sir David Bruce.
Sir David Bruce
Sir Temi Zammit
World War One
During World War One, the role of the Station Hospital was once again vital, despite Malta not being on the frontline of the conflict. The hospital played a significant part in the evacuation and treatment of wounded servicemen. The year 1915 saw Turkey join the Central Powers and enter the war against the Allies. The decision was made to invade the Gallipoli peninsula, but this turned out to be a disastrous military campaign with thousands of casualties on both sides. The former Sacra Infermeria, now known as the Station Hospital, was used as a sorting base for the wounded arriving in hospital ships due to its proximity to the harbour. The wounded were then distributed to various other hospitals and convalescent camps spread throughout the island. However, the most severely wounded were kept and treated at the Station Hospital as it was deemed too risky to move them. The hospital had over 300 surgeons and 1,000 nurses during World War One, and almost 140,000 casualties from the Gallipoli and Salonika campaigns received treatment here. Malta earned the nickname of ‘Nurse of the Mediterranean’ due to its significant role in providing medical care for the wounded.
After serving as a hospital for over three centuries, the Station Hospital in Valletta finally closed down following the end of World War One. The remaining patients were transferred to the new military hospital in Mtarfa, and the building was handed over to the Civil Government. It was a significant moment as the building ceased its operations as a hospital for the first time since its construction 345 years before. Instead, in 1920 it became the new Police Depot, serving as the headquarters for the police force in the Valletta District. The building was equipped with all the necessary facilities, including sleeping quarters, sanitation, recreation rooms, and a canteen. Additionally, it had a gymnasium, an armoury, and stables for horses. The Police Headquarters remained in the building until June 1940 when it was relocated to a safer location outside Valletta due to the outbreak of World War Two.
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. (1998). Human suffering during the Maltese Insurrection of 1798. Malta: Storja 1998, p.48-65.
Ellul, M. (1989). The Sacra Infermeria since 1800: A Historical Survey. Malta: Maltese Medical Journal 20 Volume I Issue III