Did the Church Start Hospitals? – Yes, But Some Others Try to Take Credit

Christians have created the best cultures in the world, and lots of great institutions have their root in the church.

One is the civilian hospital, and Christians can always point to it and thereby defend the goodness of the religion.

Although people who hate Christians will try to pretend this is not the case.

So this article will teach you what you need to know in order to use hospitals to defend the goodness of the church.

Christians invented civilian hospitals. Military hospitals existed beforehand, and Christians made them civilian institutes. This was after the First Council of Nicaea, in 325. They were inspired by Christ’s healing activities. So they conceived of the church as a hospital for the sick world.

So, that’s the short answer.

Christians invented civilian hospitals because Christ was a healer.

Field hospitals did exist beforehand, but these were always temporary and limited to soldiers.

Overview of the First Hospitals

Medical care within the Roman Empire began to spread rapidly after its adoption of Christianity as the state religion. Following the First Council of Nicaea, hospitals were added to the cathedrals of every town in which they were present. The two earliest hospitals built this way were in Constantinople and Caesarea near the end of the fourth century.

Then, in the 5th century, hospitals became a common fixture throughout the Eastern Roman world. This was the time when the public first gained access to medical care. These hospitals often kept libraries and living quarters for their staff. Training programs within slowly became common as well. Patients would often live in the hospital in quarters near to their doctors, and this was the first form of in-patient medical care.

Byzantine hospitals were often staffed by the following: a chief physician, nurses, orderlies, and doctors of both sexes. Eventually, they had developed to the point at which they contained specialized wards and treatment facilities.

Where were the first hospitals located?

The Byzantine Empire was one of the first empires to have flourishing medical establishments. Prior to the Byzantine Empire the Roman Empire had hospitals specifically for soldiers and slaves. However, none of these establishments were for the public.

The hospitals in Byzantium were originally started by the church to act as a place for the poor to have access to basic amenities. Hospitals were usually separated between men and women. Although the remains of these hospitals have not been discovered by archeologists, recordings of hospitals from the Byzantine Empire describe large buildings that had the core feature of an open hearth

 The establishments of the Byzantine Empire resembled the beginning of what we now know as modern hospitals.

The first hospital was erected by Leontius of Antioch between the years 344 to 358 and was a place for strangers and migrants to find refuge. Around the same time, a deacon named Marathonius was in charge of hospitals and monasteries in Constantinople. His main objective was to improve urban aesthetics, illustrating hospitals as a main part of Byzantine cities.

Most of the early hospitals were meant for the poor and intended as a form of charity for those monastics working within. That this was the case meant that hospitals throughout the Eastern Roman Empire were used almost exclusively by the poor. So the hospitals within the Empire tended to be poorly funded and could not summon the most effective surgeons to them. So the function of these institutions was usually to reduce pain and suffering rather than to provide large procedures.

Common Practices

Medical practices within the Eastern Roman Empire were inherited from two people: Hippocrates and Galen. Hippocrates was the physician after whom the Hippocratic Oath is named. Galen was an exceptionally talented Roman medical student.

The Empire’s common medical practices therefore followed the Hippocratic Theory. Its doctors believed that the body contained four fluids. The fluids changed in response to seasons, temperatures, and humidities. The four fluids were: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. They believed that illnesses could be attributed to imbalances between these four fluids. Then they resorted to Galen’s writings for classifying and balancing these fluids within a suffering patient.

Other patient characteristics which The Empire’s physicians observed included: the pulse, urine, breathing rate, and speech.

Galen’s writings directed physicians to measure a patient’s pulse in terms of its size, strength, speed, frequency, and firmness.

Eastern Contributions

The Eastern Roman Empire also produced its own influential physician, John Zacharias Aktouarios, also had a large impact in the field of urology. He developed a series of tests and tools for using urinalysis to identify diseases. The most interesting of these was a unique vial which could separate a patient’s urine into eleven segments. Urine poured into the vial would separate within the vial and produce a characteristic appearance which could then be used to diagnose diseases.

Physicians would diagnose diseases by identifying fluid imbalances. Then, they would attempt to cure the disease by balancing the fluids. The most common methods for achieving this included dietary changes, medicine, bloodletting, and surgery.

Of these methods, surgery was often as interesting as it was excruciating.

One physician of the time writes about his experience fixing a hernia:

“After making the incision to the extent of three fingers’ breadth transversely across the tumor to the groin, and removing the membranes and fat, and the peritoneum being exposed in the middle where it is raised up to a point, let the knob of the probe be applied by which the intestines will be pressed deep down. The prominence, then, of the peritoneum, formed on each side of the knob of the probe, are to be joined together by sutures, and then we extract the probe, neither cutting the peritoneum nor removing the testicle, nor anything else, but curing it with applications used for fresh wounds.”

Outside the Empire

Persia & India

Some of the earliest Christians lived in Persia, and they founded a hospital in a city called Gundeshapur. Gundeshapur was located in modern-day Iran, and most of the Christians living here were Syriacs.

The Christian population living in this city maintained itself for a few centuries before it received an influx of Nestorian Christians. The Nestorians had been expelled for heresy from the Eastern Roman Empire, and the Persian King, Khosrow I, granted them asylum here in 529.

A few of these Nestorian Christians had trained in academies at Athens, and they knew something about medicine. So they were prepared to found a hospital within Gundeshapur. Their hospital included a laboratory, a medical school, a library, an observatory, and a place for translations.

This hospital also hosted a well-known doctor from India named Mankah. Mankah had brought with him knowledge of medicine learned from the writings of an ancient Indian physician named Susruta. The writings which Mankah left here were seized by the Arabs following the Muslim invasions and used as the standard for their medical practices.

The Islamic World

The First Muslim Hospitals

The Muslims invaded the greater part of the Middle East and it surroundings after the 7th century. When they did so, they seized and enslaved many diverse groups of people. Some of the conquered people had medical training, and the Muslims used their captured knowledge to construct hospitals.

Monasticism is a sin in Islam. So monks and nuns did not staff the Muslim hospitals. Instead, caliphs brought doctors to maintain them. The Muslim kings were able to find these doctors easily because they had enslaved a diverse array of peoples.

In this way, hospitals were divorced from their religious role. This took place in the early years of the eight century under the reign of the Baghdadi king, Harun Al-Rashid. The first of these hospitals was located in Baghdad, and they gradually spread throughout the empire from there.

Modern hospitals are no longer maintained by clergy, and this is because the Muslims separated the two. Therefore, many sources credit the Muslim world with inventing the hospital. Indeed, hospitals as we know them today first arose in the Islamic World. However, it would be a mistake to credit the Muslims with inventing the hospital because they merely copied the idea from Christians and modified its structure.

Gene Botkin

Gene is the director of the Theosis Christian Project. He studied physics and military science before founding the Project. Gene is currently pursuing his doctorate in systems engineering at an engineering college in the Ozarks. The Theosis Christian Project is his attempt to expand Holy Orthodoxy in America.

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