The Sacra Infermeria is tied with the origins of medical teaching in Malta. This is because this was the place where the School of Anatomy was founded by the Spanish Grand Master Nicolás Cotoner.

During the rule of the Order of Saint John, the Sacra Infermeria has gained a good reputation, being labelled one of the best Hospitals of the time. This is due to high medical standards being provided to the patients admitted within this hospital, and the expertise of the staff working there. Despite all this Malta did not have a medical school. Due to this, promising Maltese students were being sponsored to study abroad, with the agreement that after they finish their studies they would work at the Sacra Infermeria. Nevertheless, there was a change in 1676 when Grand Master Cotoner announced that he would set up a school of Anatomy and Surgery from his own pocket. He also set up the Cotoner Foundation so that funding would carry on even after his death.

Nicolás Cotoner

During his time in office Cotoner was responsible for numerous projects, such projects would include the redecoration of St. John’s Co-Cathedral also found in Valletta and the construction of the Cottonera Lines. It would not come as a surprise that he also gave prominence to improving the medical field, especially during a hard period of time. During the same year Malta had suffered from a devastating plague outbreak. Furthermore, among the thousands of victims, there had been no less than 16 surgeons. This was worrying, since while a doctor would qualify after following an established course, surgeons needed more years and practice as well as experience to reach their status. Hence, Cotoner might have been trying to solve this problem by providing facilities for new surgeons to be trained in the shortest time possible.

By time, a number of Maltese surgeons would lead this institution. The first appointed lecturer was Rev. Dr. Joseph Zammit, who was a well-known physician and benefactor. Zammit has also paid for the setting up of a botanic garden in the ditch of nearby Fort St. Elmo. The plants and herbs that were planted were to be used at the Sacra Infermeria. This garden was later transferred to the former gardens of Bailiff Ignatius d’Argote at Florina, today known as Argotti Gardens. Dr Joseph Zammit lectured both Maltese and foreign students who aspired to become surgeons. At this period of time the course to become a qualified surgeon lasted 10 years. Students had to know how to read and write and were sometimes admitted at a young age of 12. Initially, at the time only theoretical anatomy and surgery were taught, since at the time dissections on cadavers were prohibited by the Church and there were no available amenities to carry out such work.

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.


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 

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

The Author

Matthew Camilleri | Colour my Travel
By Published On: May 30th, 2023