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 [1]

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.

[1] Under the Influence – How Christianity Transformed Civilization, Alvin J. Schmid, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids Michigan, ©2001 pp.151-156