At the time the School of Anatomy and Surgery was opened in 1676 as seen in the previous article, dissections on corpses were prohibited by the church. Nevertheless, this would change during the time the Italian Grand Master Marc’Antonio Zondadari was the head of the Order of Saint John.
Grand Master Zondadari said that in order to help the students who are studying to become surgeons, post-mortem examinations should be undertaken at the Sacra Infermeria. It was the year 1721, when a Maltese surgeon named Gabriele Henin was sent to the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, to learn practical anatomy for three years, at the Order’s expense. Henin was placed in charge of the School of Anatomy and Surgery within the Sacra Infermeria upon his return in 1724. He would become the first lecturer to introduce classes of dissection and demonstrations on the human body. By this time this class was also compulsory for all students. Furthermore, in order to provide the teacher of anatomy with the necessary materials, it was decided that all the bodies of those who passed away at the Sacra Infermeria, including high ranking knights, had to be subjected to autopsies. Compared to other contemporary medical schools in Europe this was an innovative measure, since European medical schools only used unclaimed bodies of patients and bodies of executed criminals for dissection.
At the time dissection could only be performed during winter months since freezers to preserve bodies were not yet invented. In addition, the job was impossible during the hot summer months, due to the smell of decomposing bodies. Nevertheless, a number of anatomical models coloured in wax were eventually acquired, this allowed students to continue with their studies all year round.
Even though, at first dissections were being carried out at the Sacra Infermeria, later on in time a dissection room was built in the hospital’s graveyard, which was eventually replaced by an anatomical theatre in the year 1794. This was a purposely-built semi-circular building, and it remained in use by the Medical School of the University of Malta, on the site where the Evans Building is located nowadays. This lasted till the year 1942, since it was destroyed by an aerial bombardment during the Second World War.
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 try out a free trial at home by downloading the application from here (IOS) or here (Android). If you have any problems trying it out, reach out to us on Facebook!
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/
Cassar, P. (1969). Malta and its Medical School. Chest-piece, 3(1), 11-15.
Cassar, P. (1983). From The Holy Infirmary of the Knights of St John to the Mediterranean Congress Centre. Malta