Medicine History Museum of Toulouse

The Medicine History Museum of Toulouse is an interesting FREE museum situated not far from the city’s center.
It relates through its paintings, sculptures and old medical instruments collections the city’s 900 years health care history starting with the first hospital set-up near the Saint Sernin Cathedral towards the end of the 11th century for the pilgrims on their road to Santiago de Compostela .
The Hospital Hôtel-Dieu Saint Jacques that homes the medicine museum was founded in 1313, and was at that time one of the many hospitals, “houses of charity” and leper colonies of Toulouse – amongst which the Hôpital de la Grave for example existed since 1197. In the beginning of the 16th century the number of “health establishments” of Toulouse reached the number of 30 for a population estimated at between 20,000 to 50,000 inhabitants.
In 1348 a terrifying epidemic reaches Toulouse: the bubonic plague. This bacterial infectious disease that spreads from rats to humans hits the whole Europe several times until the middle of the 19th century and is responsible for the death of up to 1/3 of the continent’s population. At the time the only “remedies” known against this terrible infection were the “cito, longe, tarde” – meaning that at the first case of plague one should leave as soon as possible, as far as possible and return as late as possible – and the questionable “four thieves’ vinegar”.
A curious – to the modern eye –presence during the plague epidemics were the doctors dressed with long coats, hats, gloves and boots all made of Levant leather – supposedly capable of insulating the wearer from the bacteria and the smells around – and most interestingly using a mask the shape of a bird beacon stuffed with nice smelling herbs. The eye slits were also protected with glass. The costume was the invention of the Charles de l’Orme physician to King Louis XIII.
Starting in the 16th century the many of the Toulouse’s hospitals were merged together mostly because of the fear that the nurses traveling from one establishment to another could carry germs and infect the population. In 1540 there are only 5 hospitals attested in the city with the Hôtel-Dieu Saint Jacques and Hôpital de la Grave being the biggest.
At the time the medicine was holding that the human body’s health depended on the balance between four humors (basic substances) which were the black bile (melan chole), yellow bile (chole), phlegm (phlegma) and blood (haima) and the diseases were caused by the excess of the deficit of one of them.
The treatments were manly limited to purge, bloodletting, diets and the occasional herbal remedies (as attested by the pharmacy on display in the first hall of the museum).
In 1689 the nuns belonging to the congregation of the “Filles de la Charité” (Charity’s Daughters) take over the Toulouse hospitals’ patients care (they remain active there with one brief interruption during the 1789 Revolution until 1983). The sisters were supposed to attend to the physical as well as the spiritual wellbeing of the patients.
During the French revolution of the end of the 18th century the Hospital Hôtel-Dieu changes its name – according to the secular principles brought in fashion at the time – to the Hospital of Humanity (the Hôpital de la Grave becomes the Hospital of Benevolence), the nuns are chased away and starting from the utopian point of view that in an egalitarian society there should be no more beggars, vagabonds –individuals that were by tradition welcomed into the hospitals alongside the sick – the number of beds are drastically reduced along with the subventions that the hospitals were receiving until then.
These are times of general unrest and disorganization: for lack of funds the hospitals are forced to sell their own furniture, to rent their front yard to merchants and even to try to grow medicinal plants in the cemeteries. To this shortage of money it is added the want in professionalism of the new secular nurses and the authorities decide to bring back starting in 1796 the good “Sisters of Charity”.
The beginning of the 19th century tries to mend the destructions caused by social unrest and in 1801 is founded the “Society of the Physicians and Pharmacists”, in 1804 the first program of mass vaccination is set up and a Medical School is created in Toulouse in 1806. The beginning of the 19s century brings also the practice of the modern medicine with the first anesthesia performed in 1847 – with a mask soaked in chloroform -, the advent of the antiseptic and aseptic techniques invented by Pasteur and Lister, the invention the aspirator (or pneumothorax) for the cure of the tuberculosis (of course replaced in the second half of the 20th century by antibiotics) etc.

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