Last week’s National Nurses Day heralded a flood of appreciation for the work nurses do as they (and other health care workers/first responders) risk their lives to save others. Such dedication seems so much a part of American heroism, we do not realize it was not always this way.
Heroic physicians date as far back as the middle ages, when they treated victims of epidemics. Their PPE was quite primitive — and frightening. Imagine seeing this looming above your sick bed!
But when did the first hospital, as we know it, become part of Western civilization? I discovered the earliest history of hospitals in a book titled Under the Influence — How Christianity Transformed Civilization, by Alvin J. Schmidt 
Schmidt refers to Jesus’ healing ministry where he cured people of their illnesses and deformities, while healing their souls. We now know body and soul, or spirit, are united. Stress overload will produce illness, while meditation promotes health. Only the One who made us would know that, back in a world dominated by pagan worship and practice. Following their Master’s example, Jesus’ disciples went out and healed the sick as they spread the Gospel.
Romans left people to die while they fled to protect themselves during times of illness. Dionysius, a 3rd century Christian Bishop, wrote in his Epistle 12.5 that “pagans thrust aside anyone who began to be sick…and cast sufferers out upon the public roads half dead, and left them unburied, and treated them with utter contempt when they died.” He wrote that Christians, on the other hand, “visited the sick without thought of their own peril and ministered to them assiduously.”
There were places, such as the Greek iatreia, where one could be diagnosed, but there was no nursing care available. While the Romans allowed poor citizens to die unattended, they did make use of valetudinaria, which did offer some care, but only for slaves, gladiators, or ailing soldiers — not the common people, laborers or the poor.
Getting a bit closer to our concept of hospital, the 1st ecumenical council of the church at Nicaea in 325 (Constantine’s reign) directed bishops to establish a hospice in every city that had a cathedral. These xenodochia were established to heal the sick, shelter the poor, and provide lodging for Christian pilgrims. The directive was prompted by Christ’s teaching to care for the sick and be hospitable toward strangers.
The first, what I would call “real,” hospital was built by St Basil in Caesarea in Cappadocia circa 369 AD. Some historians call this a nosocomium (nosus= disease + komeu = take care of). Several buildings comprised this hospital. There was the area for tending the sick, but also lodging for physicians and nurses. And, far ahead of its time, there were workshops and industrial schools to instruct the poor while they rehabilitated.
There is much more that makes us a civilized, caring global community, that has roots firmly planted in this (much maligned by some), thing we call “church.” I found Under the Influence a really good read and an eye-opener as well.
 Under the Influence – How Christianity Transformed Civilization, Alvin J. Schmid, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids Michigan, ©2001 pp.151-156
Sue, first of all HAPPY NURSE’S WEEK/DAY!!! You are one of the best!! Of course, I enjoyed your article. It was very interesting.
Thanks, Ade. Not to mention your organizational skills in the office that made us nurses able to function more efficiently.
Wow! And here we thought Florence Nightingale started it all during the Crimean War! I have to admit, I had no idea the concept of hospitals had started so early. Thank heaven (literally!) for Jesus and his emphasis on mercy toward our fellow man!
We do have to give Flo her due, as she was influential in setting the standards used by nurses. Caregivers previously had been considered as no more than trollops, and as we know, the professionalization of nursing has been a long time coming.
Amen to that, Cathy!
Thank you, Susan, for being a voracious reader. I learn so much by reading your snippets of “book reports” like this one. And your writing is so easy to read. I like to read your articles early in the morning, during breakfast after my devotions. May God bless your ministry of communication – you truly are planting His seeds in all of us!
You made my day, Jerry!
So that’s where that mask came from! My cousin and his friends have been sharing it on Facebook and I’ve been in the dark. Very interesting post! I wondered who they used as nurses? Was it nuns and religious sisters, or did they have any formal nursing training for lay people who wanted to help?
Good question, Pat. My guess is it was Christians who just felt called to help, but I could be wrong. An excuse to read even more! I’ll post when I find out.
This is a interesting article. Thank you Sue for your excellent, well-crafted blogs.
Jesus changed everything. He taught us to love and care for each other even when it might put us at great risk.
I believe that God gives each nurse the head, heart, and hands needed to show His love.
Maybe Mary and Martha were the first nurses. Feeding, comforting, washing, and where appropriate, sharing our faith in God were all demonstrated by these two woman. That is why many of us are taught to see Jesus in every patient.
As a nurse, I thank God for giving me the opportunity to experience these gifts.
Yes, Jesus really did change everything.