The hospital, as an institution, burst suddenly onto the scene in the fourth century. It came as if out of nowhere, and in a half-century it was everywhere.
Pagan antiquity had had all the material ingredients for such an institution. The Greeks and Romans had doctors. There was ample demand for medical treatment. And yet neither Greeks nor Romans — nor Chaldeans, nor Egyptians, nor Persians — had ever produced a hospital.
The foremost expert on the early history of hospitals, Dr. Gary Ferngren of Oregon State University, states this emphatically: “The hospital was, in conception, a distinctively Christian institution, rooted in concepts of charity and philanthropy. There were no pre-Christian institutions in the ancient world that served the purpose that Christian hospitals were created to serve.”
In classical antiquity, there were many professionals in the healing arts. The medical field was a riot of different types of practitioner: herbalists, soothsayers, magicians, folk healers, as well as those who practiced Hippocratic or “empirical” medicine. There were no certification boards. There were no medical schools to grant diplomas. Healers usually underwent an apprenticeship with someone more experienced.
Many practitioners in antiquity made their living wandering from town to town, perhaps outrunning the public response to their latest failures. Some crossed continents in the course of their careers. Their clientele consisted of those who could pay.
These wandering doctors had no roots, no local loyalties, no lasting accountability. There was no institutional form available to them. Yet there was great demand for medical care. Pain, sickness, and discomfort are characteristic of the human condition since the Fall of Adam. And those who suffered went looking, sometimes desperately, for relief.
We see something interesting happen in the early Christian centuries. We know, from documentary and archeological evidence, that doctors made up an unusually large portion of the early Church. In fact, they are represented more than any other professional group. Christianity was soon known as a source of healing in the world.
Christian doctors were different from their pagan colleagues. They would take no part in abortion, assisted suicide, cosmetic castration, or infanticide — all of which were common in ancient times. Nor would they prescribe contraceptive drugs.
But that’s not all they refused to do. They also refused to turn patients away.
When a smallpox plague hit the empire in 250 A.D., many doctors fled the cities. In its deadliest phase, the disease killed thousands of people per day in Rome alone — and raged intermittently for at least 20 years.
Christian doctors didn’t flee. They stayed and tended the sick. St. Cyprian exhorted his congregation in Africa to care not only for fellow Christians, but for their pagan persecutors as well.
It was probably then that the idea of the hospital first emerged — when house churches were offered in “hospitality” to the sick who had been abandoned.
When another plague struck, 70 years later, Christians everywhere knew how to respond. The churches became refuges, where the sick could find food and care. It was the only care available to them.
Shortly afterward, Christianity was legalized, and hospitals appeared everywhere. No city could be without one. Some cities had a halfdozen. Soon, most cities also had forms of ambulance service.
Once established, Christian hospitals became de facto research institutions — where professionals could observe the way illnesses progressed in multiple patients.
The hospital could not have happened without Christianity. Pagan societies had the material resources to invent it. But they lacked the spiritual resources. They lacked a belief in charity — self-giving love — as a share in the life of God. They lacked the belief in human dignity and universal brotherhood. They were unaware of the divine command to heal and show hospitality to friends and strangers alike, and even to enemies.
The hospital did not arise in a pre-Christian world. We should wonder, then, whether it can survive long in a post-Christian world.
MIKE AQUILINA is the author of The Healing Imperative: The Early Church and the Invention of Medicine as We Know It. He has written more than 50 books on Catholic history, doctrine, and devotion. He has hosted 10 series on EWTN Television, and appears weekly on Sirius Radio’s “Sonrise Morning Show.”