One of the most important developments in Maltese Medical History is the establishment of the school of anatomy and surgery within the Sacra Infermeria. In 1676, Grand Master Nicolás Cotoner established the school so future Maltese doctors and surgeons could train locally instead of abroad. By time the school would help produce several prominent surgeons such as Gabriele Henin, who later in his life led the school. Another prominent graduate was Michelangelo Grima, who was one of Henin’s most promising students. Grima later became one of the Sacra Infermeria School’s most famous surgeons and teachers.
Michelangelo Grima was born in Valletta on the 15th of September,1729, and was baptised in the Church of Our Lady of Porto Salvo 3 days later. Grima was the eldest of 8 children, his father Lorenzo Grima was a businessman and his mother Rosa D’Anna was the daughter of a surgeon. Due to his social status, Grima probably received his early education at the Collegium Melitense in Valletta, operated by the Jesuit Order. However, by the age of 14, in the year 1743, he entered the Sacra Infermeria as an apprentice under the renowned Chief Surgeon Gabriele Henin. This decision was most likely influenced by his father’s recent misfortunes, after losing the sum of 25,000 scudi through unsuccessful business dealings, which left Grima’s family in a desperate need of money.
The Sacra Infermeria is where Grima first gained medical and surgical experience. Even at his young age, he showed promise. As a surgical assistant, or barberotto, he worked and slept at the hospital, helping surgeons with their duties. The pay was not particularly impressive and his future prospects were dim, unless he pursued further studies abroad. Hence, at the age of 20, despite his family’s disapproval, funded by the Order of St. John Michelangelo Grima left Malta to continue his studies in Tuscany, Italy.
In May 1750, Grima left Malta for Florence, following in Henin’s footsteps, his mentor. He enrolled at the esteemed Santa Maria Nuova hospital school, renowned for its anatomy and surgery professors. This was also one of the first schools to teach human anatomy through cadaver dissections. In letters to friends like Gozitan Canon Agius de Soldanis, Grima expressed great satisfaction with his professors and studies. During this time, he successfully experimented with intestinal sutures and in 1754, he successfully removed a dog’s spleen, proving that this was also possible in humans when this organ had been injured by penetrating wounds of the abdomen. Through this pioneering work, Grima became an early innovator in abdominal surgery.
In 1756, Grima earned his doctorate in medicine and philosophy from the University of Pisa and was offered the role of dissector at Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova hospital. By 1758, the Collegio dell’Arte Medica di Firenze approved him as a surgeon. During this time, Grima published several medical treatises, labelling him as a pioneering surgeon. Despite prestige and work opportunities in Florence, he aspired for more. Thus, Grima asked Grand Master Emmanuel Pinto de Fonseca to grant him a scholarship to further his studies in Paris and his request was granted.
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.
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Malta Medical Journal. 2006, Vol.18(4), p. 42-48
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/