I lay in bed, staring at the flood-lit towers of Notre Dame. The sky-light in my room looked straight onto the cathedral. Founded by Saint Landry in 651 AD, the Hôtel-Hopitel Dieu was the first hospital in Paris, and still cares for ill Parisians. The ghosts of some 1300 years of medical history glide along its marble corridors, whispering in consultation outside the wards, then pass into the old-fashioned lifts to visit the fourteen quiet hotel rooms hidden on the sixth floor.
Hotels can be seen as merely a place to sleep, or they can be another layer in all the experiences of travel. They don’t have to be expensive (fortunately!) but as I love pre-dawn and evening strolls, and watching a neighbourhood change by the hour, I try to pick a place to stay somewhere interesting for my walks. If the hotel comes with its own history, is in a old part of town and has a great cafe or restaurant nearby (hello, Paris!) it’s hard to resist. The Hôtel-Hopitel Dieu offered it all.
Early drawings of the Hôtel-Hopitel Dieu show a main hall divided by pillars into three aisles, with four rows of beds per aisle. Like many medieval hospitals, the Hopitel catered for the poor, offering food and shelter in addition to basic medical care. (With wolves attacking Paris well into the 1400’s, this proved a vital social role.) By 1515 the Hopitel spanned both sides of the Seine, and Francis I built the Pont au Double to allow the transport of patients across the river. Like many bridges of the time, it was covered with buildings, and the name Pont au Double came from the toll of a double denier used to pay for its construction.
Ambroise Paré (1510 – 20/12/1590)
Ambroise Paré rose to eminence as the King’s surgeon, serving four kings: Henri II,
Francis II, Charles IX and Henri III. Noted for his humility, Paré once remarked “Je le pansai, Dieu le guérit,” (I bandaged him, God healed him). Paré saw knowledge of anatomy and dissection as essential for surgery, and created the Confraternity of Saints
Cosmos and Damian, distinct from the Confraternity of Barber Surgeons who were not true doctors, for they did not know Latin.
This era of French history was marked by civil and religious war, including the infamous Bartholomew Day’s Massacre of August 2nd, 1572. (The slaughter of the Huguenots began when the bells of St-Germain-l’Auxerrois rang for Matins.)
As a consequence of personal experience, Paré wrote widely on the management of trauma. His 1545 Method of Treating Wounds describes how, lacking boiling oil to put on amputated limbs, he instead used a mixture containing rose oil (which contains the mild disinfectant phenol). To his surprise – and I assume the patients’ delight – these patients had a better recovery to those treated with boiling oil. Paré also promoted the ligature of blood vessels during amputation to minimise haemorrhage.
Bichat (14/11/1771 – 22/7/1802)
Despite refusing to use a microscope, Marie François Xavier Bichat is remembered as the father of modern histology and pathology. An anatomist and physiologist, he initially worked in Lyon. During the Revolution, however, Bichat fled to Paris, where he accepted an appointment at the Hôtel-Hopitel Dieu in 1793.
At this time, the Hopitel employed the then large number of eight physicians and one hundred surgeons.
Often housing more than 3500 patients, and with up to six patients per bed,the Hôtel-Hopitel Dieu also gained the reputation of the most unhealthy and unhygienic hospital in France.
Political instability continued, with the memory of the French Revolution, followed by the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, haunting the
country. (Louis XVI’s diary entry for July 14th, 1789, says much with its brevity: Rien – nothing). During Bichat’s appointment, Napoleon was promoted to general, then married the creole Josephine in 1796. (Apparently reluctant, Josephine was encouraged in the match by her current lover). Two days later Napoleon marched off to conquer Italy.
Bichat lies buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery. Once a poor district haunted by outlaws, La
Cité des Morts now boasts to being the world’s most visited cemetery. Amongst the 300,000 people buried here are the eclectic mix of Abélard and Héloîse, Proust, Bizet and Jim Morrison.
Dupytren (5/10/1777 – 8/2/1835)
Guillaume Dupytren became assistant surgeon at the Hôtel-Hopitel Dieu in 1803, Professor in 1811, then was given the Chair of Clinical Surgery and Head Surgeon in 1816. He also established a benevolent institution for distressed physicians.
His appointments coincided with the Napoleon’s First Republic. Even those few parts of Europe Napoleon failed to conquer were influenced by Neoclassicism, and the high-waisted Empire Fashion. Then came the reactionary Congress of Vienna in 1815, establishing a balance of power which somehow lasted until 1914. Yet the ideas of liberalism, equality, nationalism and democracy could not be quenched, as witnessed by the insurrections of 1830 and again in 1848, when barricades and rioting blocked the streets of Paris.
Best known for his treatise on appendicitis, Dieulafoy’s triad – hyperaesthesia of the skin, exquisite tenderness and guarding over McBurney’s point – is still memorised by
medical students. At this time cholera outbreaks regularly swept through the overcrowded city. Partly for hygiene, but also to develop broad avenues to allow rapid troop movement (and to prevent rioters barricading narrow streets), Baron Haussmann began redesigning Paris. The slums surrounding the Hôtel-Hopitel Dieu on the Ile de la Cité, so vividly described in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, were levelled in 1864, and the present building begun in 1877.
To combat both disease and revolution, the Parisian sewers were modernised, and opened for public tours in 1867. Society ladies could be seen floating by in luxury sluice carts, steered by white-clad sewer men.
Hartmann’s appointment to the Hôtel-Hopitel Dieu proved eponymous: Hartmann’s procedure, Hartmann’s pouch, Hartmann’s critical point, and Hartmann’s forceps to
name just a few.
In 1874, a group of artists (including Monet, Degas and Pissaro) organised an exhibition in Paris, and Impressionism was born. Baron Haussman continued to beautify Paris, and in 1889, Eiffel built his temporary tower. The Dreyfus Affair of 1894 divided the country, leading to the rise of the Left and the separation of Church and State. (Consequently, the Augustine nuns left the Hôtel-Hopitel Dieu in 1908, where their order had tended the sick for centuries). This Golden Age of The Third Republic – La Belle Epoch – ended only with the First World War.
The Hôtel-Hopitel Dieu Today
Today the Hôtel-Hopitel Dieu remains a working hospital, with a special interest in ophthalmology and dermatology. Even if not staying, just walk through the front door to admire the marble corridors, and the peaceful courtyard. The Hôtel-Hopitel Dieu is also a perfect place to stay in the true heart of Paris, where the celtic Parisii founded a fishing village on a small island in the Seine over 2,000 years ago.
The Literary Traveller
Set in Paris and the French countryside, Fantômas is a fast paced crime / detective thriller. Written in 1911, and translated from the French in 1915, it has a very modern feel, and its influences can be seen in the likes of writers such as Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.
For my review, click here.