Places of healing

As businesses and institutions in France begin to open up, cautiously, I find myself trying to imagine life in the city right now. Those thoughts start with the quartier we know best – the Observatoire. It’s a neighbourhood that I have written about before.

One of its main features is the prevalence of hospitals.

The Val de Grâce military hospital consists of a glorious array of 17th-century buildings crowned by a dome, and a modern hospital, the two separated by a vast empty garden.

The Port Royal maternity hospital has a lovely hidden courtyard.

The Ste-Anne psychiatric hospital is a little village in itself with calming green promenades linking the buildings.

The sprawling, bustling campus of the Cochin Hospital features a complex system of interior streets.

We have also been watching the transformation of the nearby Hôpital St-Vincent-de-Paul on the boulevard to the west of us. It closed some years ago. The site is now occupied by “Les Grands Voisins,” and has become a temporarily repurposed space for start-ups, shelters, workshops, craft sales (like the one shown below), performance spaces, cafes, and community services.

The site was due to be redeveloped into housing and green space starting this year. But last I heard, the volunteers there were distributing food parcels and making masks, so perhaps that timetable has moved back.

Our research at the Association Valentin-Haüy takes us past a series of medical establishments along the boulevard du Montparnasse, including the Necker children’s hospital (Enfants Malades), which has recently undergone a major renovation.

When we take the 95 bus in the other direction, we glimpse the huge La Pitié–Salpetrière hospital near the Gare d’Austerlitz with its domed chapel. A friend who has lived in Paris tells me that she used to enjoy walking in the spacious grounds.

La Pitié–Salpetrière has a murky history as a prison for prostitutes and an asylum for mentally ill women (many of whom were kept chained up), not to mention as a gunpowder factory (which uses saltpeter, hence the name). In the 19th century, Doctor Jean-Martin Charcot developed the study of neurology here (his theories were later superseded, but he established the field of study), and inspired further study by the likes of Sigmund Freud, who attended his lectures. It is now a general and teaching hospital.

So many hospitals.

And I have been thinking of the front-line workers and the patients at all these places. As the threat from coronavirus recedes somewhat, Paris, like Toronto and all major cities, is facing a backlog of other medical cases and emergencies – an exhausting prospect for already exhausted staff.

Thinking about hospitals sent me, as usual, to our postcard collection, looking for images. Paris hospitals often occupy historic buildings and many include courtyards and gardens (some of which were once the cloisters of religious establishments). I found quite a few images. Here’s the entrance to the Hôpital St-Louis, close to the Canal St-Martin, in an image dating from the early 20th century.

This entry pavilion is little changed today.

Another postcard provides an overview of its extent in the 17th century.

The central courtyard is still there, and so is the chapel, as we can see in this satellite view from Google.

St-Louis specializes in the treatment of cancer and in dermatology. The historic buildings are still in use for administration, while clinical services are provided in a modern facility, visible in the top right of the satellite view.

Another postcard shows the Hôpital Laënnec, now closed, which once had the depressing name of the “hospital for incurables.” It was named for the inventor of the stethoscope, who himself had worked at the Hôpital Necker. It is near the Bon Marché, and the site has been largely redeveloped, although the historic elements, including the spire and the lantern, remain.

The site now contains private apartments, student residences, offices, and a seniors’ residence.

The Hôpital Lariboisière was established after a cholera epidemic in the 1830s, and was intended to pioneer practices of hygiene and disinfection. It is now a teaching hospital affiliated with the University of Paris. It was originally called simply the Hôpital du Nord (it is close to the Gare du Nord), but when the Countess Elise de Lariboisière died in 1851 without an heir, she left her fortune to the hospital, which took her name in gratitude. The buildings are now under renovation.

The Hôtel-Dieu on the Ile de la Cité is Paris’s oldest hospital, founded in the 7th century. “Hôtel-Dieu” denotes a hospital intended for the treatment of the poor, and there are hospitals with that name in many French and Canadian cities.

The Hôtel-Dieu retains its emergency centre, as well as departments for ophthalmology and the treatment of diabetes. I have my own memories of it.

When I was a student in Paris, I developed an infection near my ear, and I went to the emergency department. Several residents examined me, and I was sent to the ear-nose-and-throat department. The people there determined that my ear was not, in fact, infected, and sent me to the surgical department to have the painful area dressed. I sat glumly in the waiting room, and the lady next to me struck up a conversation, asking me about myself.

When a doctor called me in, he said I would have to pay before he could treat me. As I had very little money, and was in some pain and stress, I burst into tears. Forthwith, the lady in the waiting room flew to my side and berated the doctor. “This young woman has come to France to learn our language and study our civilization and you are persecuting her!” The doctor gulped and took a step back. He hastily prescribed antibiotics, dressed the sore spot, and sent me packing. I was too intimidated to go back, but the antibiotics did the trick in time. And that wonderful lady helped me form a lifelong fondness for the French.

The next time I needed to see a doctor when I was a student, I avoided the Hotel-Dieu and went to the Hertford British Hospital, a huge neo-Gothic pile in the suburbs, founded by Richard Wallace, the same man who gave Paris its Wallace fountains. I don’t remember much about my experience there, so I assume it was uneventful.

The final image in our postcard collection is the American Hospital in Neuilly, in an image dating from the 1950s.

I have never been there, but someone I took a great interest in died in that hospital. Back in 2010, I became very taken with the work of Stanley Loomis (1922–72), an American writer of four books of French history and biography. He died there a few days short of his 50th birthday (and a few days before Christmas), after being hit by a taxi in the Place de la Concorde.

I ended up writing a Wikipedia article on Loomis (as well as a longer unpublished autobiography), with the help of some of his family members and friends and thereby made several friends myself with whom I am still in touch.

None of this, of course, tells you what is going on now in these places of healing. I guess I could say that I’ve looked at hospitals from both sides now, and it’s their illusions I recall. I really don’t know French health care at all.

Text by Philippa Campsie, image of Hertford Hospital from the Wellcome Collection, panorama of the Necker Hospital from the hospital’s Linkedin site, satellite and street views from Google maps, all other images by Philippa Campsie or from our postcard collection.

P.S. Last week was National Nursing Week, at least here in Canada. An Instagram post from the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto quotes Charles Kirk Clarke, a pioneering Canadian psychiatrist, as saying: “When one looks for the foundation on which the reputation of any great hospital is built, it will soon be learned that the efficiency of the nursing department is a greater factor than the competency of the medical staff.” Nurses, of course, have known that all along.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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6 Responses to Places of healing

  1. Marilyn says:

    Un grand merci, Philippa, for another wonderful posting. We always stay on rue LeClerc, just a short walk away from l’Observatoire, so your stories help me wander in my mind’s eye through this charming neighbourhood, even if we won’t be there in person this year. Best wishes.

    • Hello sort-of-neighbour! I hope you and yours are well. One day…one day we will all be in Paris at the same time, and we will get together for a long-overdue lunch or dinner. It may be 2021 or 2022, but we will, I promise!

  2. Trish says:

    This was so interesting! And I smiled at your final words and the allusion to clouds and not knowing life at all. I miss France, I may never get there again, but it’s good to walk down memory lane in your posts.

  3. Jan Whitaker says:

    Love your story of the woman who sprang to your defense.

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