During their extended stay in Malta, the Order of St. John had a significant impact on the local healthcare system. Their greatest achievement was the construction of the Sacra Infermeria hospital in Valletta, which became world-renowned for its exceptional care. Despite facing financial challenges towards the end of the 18th century, the hospital continued to provide crucial medical assistance to the sick and injured for an additional 120 years. Although the hospital’s glory days had passed, it remained an important part of the island’s history and continued to serve a vital role in the community.
After Napoléon Bonaparte ousted the Knights from Malta in 1798, French forces took control of the Sacra Infermeria hospital and repurposed it as a military hospital, naming it the Grand Hopital. The French rule in Malta was not well-received by the locals, and a rebellion soon broke out. This time, Malta would once again experience a siege, but it was the French who were trapped inside the harbour cities, while the Maltese held control of the countryside. The Maltese, who lacked proper weapons and ammunition to engage in direct confrontations with the French, implemented a strategy of starvation, cutting off the French’s supply lines in the hopes of weakening their resolve.
The British, also with interests in the Mediterranean region, joined the conflict, establishing a naval blockade that further restricted the French access to food supplies. With food shortages becoming increasingly severe, the French troops inside Malta began to experience the consequences of malnutrition, leading to illnesses such as scurvy, a condition caused by a lack of Vitamin C, and night blindness, which results from insufficient Vitamin A. As if these issues were not enough, the French soldiers had to contend with the quality of drinking water from the cisterns within the city walls, which was often contaminated, leading to widespread dysentery.
The situation led to the creation of new hospitals to cope with the increasing number of sick and injured troops. However, the lack of sufficient food supplies meant that the patients could not receive adequate nutrition. As a result, they had to resort to feeding the soldiers with horse and donkey meat. Eventually, even this became scarce, and the patients had to survive on beans.
The French forces eventually surrendered in 1800, marking the end of the siege. However, the impact of the siege and the food shortages continued to affect the health and wellbeing of the soldiers long after the end of the conflict.
After the British entered Valletta in 1800, the military authorities took control of all public buildings, including the Grand Hopital, which they renamed the Station Hospital. They immediately set up medical facilities to accommodate 350 of their ailing troops. However, over the following years, the number of patients treated at the hospital was so low that most of the building was used for other purposes.
For instance, the Long Ward was used as a rope-walk, where ropes were manufactured primarily for use by the British navy. Later, a large section of the same area, as well as part of the basement, were leased to a wine-making business and used as a store for Marsala wine. In the 1860s, the Station Hospital underwent significant structural changes aimed at improving its sanitary conditions. The changes included adding new windows to improve ventilation and constructing a long open stone balcony that remains visible along most of the side overlooking Mediterranean Street.
Despite its original purpose as a hospital for sick and injured soldiers, the Station Hospital went through many changes, reflecting the evolving needs of the British forces stationed in Malta. The building’s versatility and adaptability allowed it to remain relevant and useful to the British authorities for many years, long after its original function as a hospital had ended. Keep an eye out for our next article, where we explore several global events that the Sacra Infermeria played a role in.
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. (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