Hospitals and healthcare in old Gdańsk
In old Gdańsk, as in all Europe at that time, there was no institutionalised healthcare. Admittedly, in the Middle Ages a network of hospitals was created, but then the ‘hospital’ did not mean a medical institution, but a place of care for the elderly, the disabled, people without family support, the poor and orphans.
Probably the oldest in Gdańsk is the hospital of Holy Spirit, built before 1333. Originally it was located on the street with the same name, but in the mid-15th century it was moved to a plot at the junction of Tobiasza Street and U Furty Street (where it stands to this day). In the 14th and the 15th centuries, other hospitals were established, including: of St Gertrude, St Barbara, All God’s Angels. Some of the hospitals were specialized. St James Hospital served the old seamen and their widows. In turn, at the hospital of St Elizabeth rooms for childcare were separated; and in the 16th century a separate institution was created – an orphanage subject to the special care of Polish kings.
A special function has been assigned to the Lazarus hospital. The name of the hospital comes from the name of the biblical Lazarus (resurrected by Jesus), who was to show mercy to people suffering from infectious diseases. That is why the Gdańsk Lazarus hospital was intended to care for people infected with smallpox, plague and other diseases. As the only hospital in Gdańsk it employed its own barber surgeon and doctor. From 1755, there was a pharmacy in the hospital, where the poor could receive medicines free of charge. The hospital also served as a shelter for the elderly, the poor and orphans. In the 19th century it was transformed into a city hospital dealing exclusively with healthcare.
Wealthier people could have afforded individual medical care from physicians practicing privately. Often, these doctors were well-educated because they studied at two, three or even four renowned European universities.
The epidemic was a difficult challenge for the physicians. Plague, English sweat or blackpox often hit Gdańsk. Some doctors left in a hurry to the countryside, for fear of infection, where they were less likely to get sick. Most, however, remained in Gdańsk and ministered to the sick, often with sacrifice of their lives.
• The church of Holy Spirit, around 1687, after ‘Der Stadt Dantzig Historische Beschreibung …’ by R. Curicke.
• The church of St James, around 1687, after ‘Der Stadt Dantzig Historische Beschreibung …’ by R. Curicke.
• The Lazarus hospital at the Oliwa Gate, around 1895 (from the collection of the Gdańsk Library of the Polish Academy of Sciences).
Edited by Dr hab. Adam Szarszewski and Dr Piotr Paluchowski, Department of History and Philosophy of Medical Sciences, Medical University of Gdańsk