Gunpowder, Prostitutes, and Neuroscience: What is the Explosive History of Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital?
The Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital is a well-known historical hospital located in Paris, France. But it wasn’t always a hospital. The oft-forgotten beginnings of this building may be traced back to the 17th century AD. This institution evolved over the centuries and although it served a very different purpose in the past it functions today as a general teaching hospital.
Gunpowder Factory Turned Hospital
Originally, the area where the hospital stands today was occupied by a factory that produced gunpowder (‘salpêtre’, known by its chemical name as potassium nitrate, was an ingredient used for the manufacture of gunpowder). In 1634, the factory was transferred from this area to the Bastille area. 22 years later, in 1656, the architect Libéral Bruant was ordered by the king, Louis XIV, to build a hospital where the factory once stood. Thus, the hospital, which was named La Salpêtrière to reflect the former gunpowder factory, was founded.
Hôpital de la Salpêtrière, Paris: panoramic view. Engraving by B. Winkles after B. Ferrey after A. Pugin. (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 )
‘General Hospital’ aka Prison for the Poor
La Salpêtrière was a “Hôpital Général de la Ville de Paris” (meaning ‘General Hospital of the city of Paris’). It should be said that a ‘general hospital’ during that period in France is not at all that which we would imagine when we hear the word ‘hospital’ today.
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Hospital de la Salpetriere, Paris. (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 )
First of all, these institutions did not provide medical treatment to their patients. Secondly, the ‘hospitals’ were used to hold the city’s destitute, often against their will, with the intention of improving the law and order of Paris. In other words, these ‘hospitals’, including La Salpêtrière, were in fact prisons for the poor. Apart from the poverty-stricken, other social outcasts held at such ‘hospitals’ include the insane, orphans, and prostitutes. It has been often claimed that, with a capacity of 10,000 patients, La Salpêtrière is one of the largest hospitals in the world.
La conduite des filles de joie à la Salpêtrière. (Public Domain ) Prostitutes are led to the Salpêtrière in a cart.
19th Century ‘Hospice Civil’
La Pitié, on the other hand, was originally located opposite the Jardins des Plantes in the 5th arrondissement (where the Grand Mosque of Paris is now located). This was another one of the city’s ‘general hospitals’, and had the same function as La Salpêtrière. Around the beginning of the 19th century, the ‘Hôpitals Générals’ were converted into ‘Hospices Civils’ and La Pitié became a center for the study of nervous diseases. One of the most famous doctors who served at La Pitié was Joseph Babinski, after whom the Babinski sign (which indicates damage to the central nervous system) is named. In 1913, the old La Pitié was demolished and a new one (the hospital’s current location) was built in the gardens of La Salpêtrière.
1857 lithograph by Armand Gautier, showing personifications of dementia, megalomania, acute mania, melancholia, idiocy, hallucination, erotomania and paralysis in the gardens of the Hospice de la Salpêtrière. Reprinted in Madness: A Brief History. ( Public Domain )
In the meantime, research was also being conducted at La Salpêtrière in the field of nervous diseases. In that hospital, one of the most renowned doctors was Jean-Martin Charcot, who served at the hospital for over three decades, until his death in 1893. For a start, Charcot and his colleague, Vulpian, initiated a systematic anatomo-clinical study of the chronic patients, which numbered in the hundreds, housed in the hospital’s two medical departments. This tradition would later be carried on by Charcot’s successors. Numerous disorders affecting the nervous system were discovered, some of which, for example, Charcot’s disease, were named after the doctor.
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Professor Jean-Martin Charcot teaching at the Salpêtrière in Paris, France: showing his students a woman ("Blanche" (Marie) Wittman) in a trance or shock. ( Public Domain )
Merging the Two Sites
It was only during the 1960s that La Salpêtrière and La Pitié were merged, thus forming the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. It was also towards the end of this decade that the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital became a general teaching hospital. Whilst most fields of medicine are studied at this hospital, neurology remains the predominant field of study, in keeping with the institution’s tradition.
Whilst the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital once served as a ‘prison’ for the unwanted members of Parisian society, it has since seen celebrities coming through its doors to seek medical treatment. These include Michael Schumacher, Alain Delon, Gérard Depardieu, and Prince Rainier of Monaco. Additionally, the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital is also known for being the place of death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital – Paris. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Top image: French psychiatrist Philippe Pinel (1745-1826) releasing lunatics from their chains at the Salpêtrière asylum in Paris in 1795. Source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
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