La Salpêtrière

Today the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital is one of Europe’s largest hospitals with all kinds of specialties. More recent patients include Michael Schumacher, Ronaldo, Prince Rainier of Monaco… This is also where Josephine Baker, the Princess Diana… died. Two neighbouring hospitals, La Salpêtrière and La Pitié merged in 1964.

This post will be about the La Salpêtrière. The name comes from “salpêtre”, which is a constituent of gunpowder and where the hospital stands used to be the ground for a gunpowder factory. The original part of the hospital was built between the years 1656 and 1684, under Louis XIV. Some 100 years later it was the world’s largest hospital with some 10.000 "patients"; the idea those days was that all vagabonds, beggars, prostitutes… and alienated people should be taken off the street … and this is where women arrived especially. The prostitutes were later paired with convicts and forced to settle down in the “New France”, the French colonies in North America. Clearly, La Salpêtrière was those days rather a hospice where the main concern was to get these people off the street – no real care was offered.

A terrible incident is linked to this hospital: During the worst days of the Revolution, in September 1792, the hospital was stormed by a mob which released most of the prostitutes, but also killed a large number of “mad-women”. The same thing happened at other hospitals.

As late as during the 19th century, balls with the “mad-women” were organized at the hospital. Obviously it was made with good intentions.

On the premises you could also since 1684 find a real prison for women. The building is still there… , but used for other purposes. 

Those days, it seemed more important to take care of the “souls” of the patients. The Church was obviously very present. A large chapel was of course part of the hospital. The octagonal plan is original with four side chapels.

The conditions for the “patients” or “prisoners” were frightening. However, slightly and slowly things changed somewhat for the better after the Revolution. During the 19th century real care started to be offered. Today, La Salpêtrière is definitely a real hospital with a majority of recent buildings, and the more frightful parts are gone or modernized. I concentrated however on taking pictures of what remains of the older buildings. We can see a block of cells for the “mad-women” with small seats in front.

So coming to more comforting information…

In front of the main entrance stands a statue of Philippe Pinel (1745-1826). Largely helped by one of his previous patients who had suffered from and been treated for tuberculosis and who became his assistant, he is known for having liberated patients from their chains, virtually and literally. He did away with bleeding, purging, blistering … in favour of therapy. (He also created an inoculation clinic – the first vaccination in Paris was given here in 1800.) Pinel became chief physician at the hospital and professor of medical pathology. A (later) painting shows the liberation of chains. You can possibly claim that this was a first break from the religious notion of “possession by evil spirits”.

The most famous personality who worked at the Salpetrière is however  Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-93), who greatly influenced the developing fields of neurology and psychology and who by many is considered as the founder of modern neurology.

He may however be best known for his work on hypnosis and hysteria. His lessons and demonstrations were often open to the public, other than scientists, and many intellectuals, authors… assisted and reported about it. We can see a painting from one of his lectures, with a famous hysteria-“performing”-patient, Blanche Wittmann, called the “Queen of Hysterics”. She later got a job at the hospital, obviously working too close to radium, and died at 53 after several amputations.

For scientists Charcot’s name is also linked, however, to a number of discoveries and he was, for example, the first to describe multiple sclerosis (“sclerose en plaques”). His studies were also the beginning of the understanding of Parkinson’s disease.  He had a number of later well-known assistants and pupils, including Sigmund Freud.  
The premises where he worked are gone, but his private library has been saved. 


Karin B (Looking for Ballast) said...

Thank you, Peter, as always! I had been in and around this hospital a couple of times, but had no idea about the rich history and groundbreaking things that happened here. I never considered how much history was of course a part of the hospital! I feel enriched by this post.

And it is my first time to read since not being in Paris. :) I am now doubly grateful to have your posts to read as a way to stay in touch with a place that caused and challenged me to grow so much.

Take care, Peter, and keep up the excellent work.

With gratitude,

Olivier said...

c'est un magnifique batiment, mais en tant qu'hopital il aurait besoin d'un coup de jeunesse

French Girl in Seattle said...

Bonjour Peter. Like Karin, above, I send my thank you's for teaching me so much about an iconic Parisian landmark. I know you concentrated on showing the older parts of the buildings, but really, I do not think I would like to be sent there in case of an emergency. It looks so... grim... and with these dreadful stories from the past AND the famous people who died there... Brrrr... A bit spooky-- just in time for Halloween! Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

Studio at the Farm said...

This is a most interesting post, Peter. Thank you very much.

Owen said...

You can add me to the list of people who have been cared for there in one way or another...

And inside the Salpetriere church did you see these on the wall by any chance :


Always out there doing what you do best... sharing Paris with us...

Thérèse said...

Les temps changent mais quand il s'agit de renover de nos jours, le temps ne cesse de s'etirer.

Anonymous said...

Amazing post! Always great to read into the discoveries of a fellow connaisseur of Paris. Many thanks, Peter!

Alain said...

Un ensemble vraiment immense qui doit faire envie aux promoteurs immobiliers. Bien que l'on distribue des plans à l'entrée principale, ce n'est pas toujours facile de trouver le bon bâtiment.

Cezar and Léia said...

Very interesting story of this building, and a little bit sad in some way...I like a lot your pictures.The organ is beautiful! :)
hugs and a nice day

arabesque said...

this was a bit out of the way, but the trip was well worth it.
very informative Peter,
i certainly learned something today. ^0^

Anonymous said...

1800: First vaccination in Paris or in the entire French country?
Rather late for such enlightened
place, no?

By that time many citizens of the young United States were already long been vaccinated.

I loved this post Peter...
Just fantastic!

parisbreakfast said...

Something else that has your name in it..
did you know about Peter's Chocolate?

Mad-woman said...

Remember when you ran away and I got on my knees and begged you not to
leave because I'd go berserk?? Well...
You left me anyhow and then the days got worse and worse and now you see
I've gone completely out of my mind.. And..
They're coming to take me away, ha-haaa!!
They're coming to take me away, ho-ho, hee-hee, ha-haaa
To the funny farm. Where life is beautiful all the time and I'll be
happy to see those nice young men in their clean white coats and they're
coming to take me away, ha-haaa!!!!!

You thought it was a joke and so you laughed, you laughed when I had said
that loosing you would make me flip my lid.. RIGHT???
I know you laughed, I heard you laugh, you laughed you laughed and
laughed and then you left, but now you know I'm utterly mad... And..
They're coming to take me away, ha-haaa,
They're coming to take me away, ho-ho, hee-hee, ha-haaa.
To the happy home. With trees and flowers and chirping birds and basket
weavers who sit and smile and twiddle their thumbs and toes and they're
coming to take me away, ha-haaa!!!

I cooked your food, I cleaned your house, and this is how you pay me back
for all my kind unselfish loving deeds.. Huh??
Well you just wait, they'll find you yet and when they do they'll put you
in the ASPCA, you mangy mutt!!! And...

They're coming to take me away, ha-haaa.
They're coming to take me away, ho-ho, hee-hee, ha-haaa.
To the funny farm, where life is beautiful all the time and I'll be happy
to see those nice young men in their clean white coats and they're coming
to take me away, ha-haaa!!!
To the happy home, with trees and flowers and chirping birds and basket
weavers who sit and smile and twiddle their thumbs and toes and they're
coming to take me away, ha-haa!!!
To the funny farm, where life is beautiful all the time... (fade out)

Hey, buddy!
Yes officer..
You a head?
No, but I'm catching up, ha ha ha...

claude said...

En général, je n'aime pas trop fréquenter les hôpitaux, même ceux de Paris. Je crois que j'y suis allée une fois il y a longtemps rendre visite à un cousin qui est mort dans ces murs.
Magnifique post Peter, intéressant, instructif et très bien illustré.
J'admire ton travail.

Jeanie said...

I remember seeing the sign for this when we crossed Austerlitz and thought it was the "Diana" hospital. I remember thinking it was a bit of a hike from the tunnel, though didn't know if others were closer. It certainly has a storied and diverse history -- the interior is quite beautiful, as I discover so many buildings are in France.

I must say, with my present state of emotional chaos, I could imagine spending my last days here quite happily!