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 neighbour 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 especially the women arrived. 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, things slightly and slowly moved to the somewhat 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 literarily. 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 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 however also linked to a number of discoveries and he was e.g. the first to describe the 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.