The Sacra Infermeria, or Holy Infirmary, is a historic hospital in Malta that has served as a centre of healthcare for over 400 years. While it is primarily known for its large halls and its role as a hospital, the Sacra Infermeria also housed a number of ancillary operations that were integral to the functioning of the institution. These included a pharmacy that provided medications and remedies to patients, a school of anatomy and surgery that trained doctors and medical professionals, and a foundling home that cared for abandoned infants. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at these lesser-known functions of the Sacra Infermeria and explore their significance in the history of healthcare in Malta.
One of the crucial parts of the Sacra Infermeria was the pharmacy, which was also called the spezieria. Although we don’t know the exact location of the pharmacy within the hospital, we do know that it was where all the medicine used in the hospital was prepared. The Chief Pharmacist was responsible for making sure that the medicine was given to the right patients and that detailed records were kept of where the medicine was going. The pharmacy had many containers of different sizes and shapes, which were used to store different kinds of medicine made from plants and other materials. The ingredients were sourced from both local sources and overseas to ensure the highest quality. As the doctors went on their rounds, the Chief Pharmacist accompanied them to make sure that all the medicines were administered correctly. The pharmacy was an important part of the medical care provided at the Sacra Infermeria, and it helped ensure that the patients received the best possible treatment.
The School of Anatomy & Surgery
The School of Anatomy and Surgery established by Grand Master Nicolás Cotoner in 1676 was a significant development in the history of the Sacra Infermeria. This allowed students to study medicine and surgery in Malta, which was previously only possible abroad. The school helped produce many Maltese surgeons who became well-known internationally. At first, only theoretical lessons were taught, but in the early 1700s, a dissection room was built nearby. Autopsies of patients who died were conducted here, and it was also used for practical anatomy lessons for the students. Dissections were done only in winter, as there were no freezers to preserve the cadavers, and the smell of decaying bodies during the hot summer months made the job impossible. The dissection room was eventually replaced by an anatomical theatre, which was destroyed during World War Two, by aerial bombardment.
Care of Foundlings
Like most hospitals of its time, the Sacra Infermeria also received unwanted infants. To protect the anonymity of the person leaving the child, the Knights installed the Routa – a swivelling cot at the back of the hospital, which opened up onto the street. The Sacra Infermeria staff took the abandoned babies into their care, and the hospital paid for a wet nurse to look after them. The infants were eventually put up for adoption or placed under the care of two female hospitaliere until they were old enough to move on. Girls were sent to stay with cloistered nuns in Mdina until they reached the age of marriage, and boys stayed until the age of 6. At that point, they were apprenticed to learn a trade of their choice.
The Sacra Infermeria, having provided excellent healthcare for centuries, eventually faced a decline in the late 18th century as the financial troubles of the Order of St. John began to take their toll. These economic difficulties were largely due to external factors. As a result, the Order struggled to maintain its hospitals and other institutions, including the Sacra Infermeria.
Despite these challenges, the Sacra Infermeria persevered and continued to operate as a hospital under different names for the next 120 years. This period included the French and British occupations of Malta. The hospital remained an important part of the island’s healthcare system, providing care to countless patients over the years. The full story of the Sacra Infermeria’s evolution through this period is a fascinating one that deserves further exploration in future articles.
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!
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