St Jørgen’s Hospital was a leprosy hospital with a history that goes back to the Middle Ages. The hospital was most likely originally built by the nearby Nonneseter Convent. The hospital received testamentary gifts in 1411, but we do not know how much older the hospital might be. The last two patients at St Jørgen’s Hospital both died in 1946, after which it ceased to exist as a health institution. Today's buildings date back to the 18th century, and is administred by the Bergen City Museum.
St Jørgen’s Hospital was one of several leprosy hospitals in Bergen. Leprosy was widely spread and much feared, and western Norway was badly struck by the disease in the 19th century.
"Leprosy was widely spread and much feared, and western Norway was badly struck by the disease in the 19th century."
Leprosy is a very old disease, known among many other sources from the Bible. The Mosaic Law addresses the problem, and shows how to identify the illness, as well as how to protect oneself against it. Also the story about Jesus who healed the leper is well-known. In Marc 1:40-43, the story is told like this:
“Now a leper came to Him, imploring Him, kneeling down to Him and saying to Him, ‘If You are willing, You can make me clean.’ Then Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I am willing; be cleansed’. As soon as He had spoken, immediately the leprosy left him, and he was cleansed."
Leprosy has to a large extent been tied to religion in the Christian European culture. The patients have been regarded as unclean, and were often forced into isolation. However, in Norway many people with the disease lived integrated in their communities up until the 19th century.
St Jørgen’s Hospital had, as did many similar European hospitals, a church in an adjacent building. The patients must have given the stories in the Bible a lot of thought while reading the words above the altar:
By the Lord’s Altar, I come to collect
The Sacrifice for my Sins, His Blood
To heal the Leprosy In my Body and Soul.
The sick often lived many years of their lives at St Jørgen’s Hospital. The bedrooms were small, approximately 2 by 2 metres. At times with many patients living in the hospital, two or three people shared the small room. The kitchen and the living rooms, however, were spacious.
We know a lot about the hospital and its buildings after the great fire in 1702. Prior to this, little documentation exists, and we have few leads to help us imagine what the hospital looked like. Probably the hospital comprised a number of small wooden buildings for the sick. Administration and staff had their own houses, and most likely the church was the largest and most beautiful building.
As interesting as the architecture and functions of the hospital is its location. St Jørgen’s Hospital was found on the outskirts of Bergen. The town was built around the bay, Vågen, and when people approached the hospital, they found it surrounded by open fields and pastures. Even though the hospital was situated outside the urban area, it was still within the town’s gates, along a main street into the town. With this arrangement passers-by had the opportunity to give alms to the hospital, with a minimum of direct contact with the bearers of the frightening and horrible disease.
In 1839, Daniel Cornelius Danielssen (1815-1894) came to work as a physician at St Jørgen’s Hospital, where the patients had received very little medical care in the past. Danielssen and Boeck’s Monografy "Om Spedalskhed" (About Leprosy) from 1847 marks a starting point for the modern leprosy research.
With two new hospitals - The Foundation for Care for Leprous No.1 and the Lungegård Hospital – Bergen gradually became an international centre for leprosy research. Both hospitals were established during Danielssen’s time as chief physician for leprosy in Bergen.
The young doctor Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen (1841-1912) came to work with Danielssen in 1868. The two doctors soon disagreed professionally. In Danielssen’s opinion leprosy was a hereditary blood disease, whereas Armauer Hansen believed it to be something different. The younger man had a theory that leprosy was caused by a germ. With modern microscopes and modern methods of research, he did in time verify the theory that leprosy was a contagious disease. Armauer Hansen earned great international recognition for his discoveries, and he has even become the most depicted Norwegian on foreign stamps. Today the disease is known across the world as Hansen’s disease.
Leprosy gradually diminished in Norway, making the disease practically eradicated by the early twentieth century. The Lungegård Hospital was demolished to give room for the railway, but the Foundation for Care for Leprous No.1 is still there. Armauer Hansen’s office is preserved, and is a museum today. Together with St Jørgen’s Hospital, the two buildings serve as monuments over medical history nearly forgotten in Norway. But the two doctors are not forgotten in other parts of the world – their research on the terrible disease is still internationally famous.