A place for the sick


From bloodletting to super hospitals

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Archaeological studies of ancient skeletons help to shed light on the illnesses our distant ancestors suffered from. Osteoarthritis and tuberculosis were common ailments, while syphilis and leprosy are not seen until the Middle Ages. Studies also document that there were people with knowledge of healing in ancient times. Excavations have uncovered instruments for bloodletting and surgical tools that were well suited to deal with minor accidents: scalpels, tweezers, needles and equipment for closing wounds. Trepanation, a surgical procedure for opening the skull, is also known to have been performed.

Bloodletting is general practice

The first written evidence of bloodletting in Denmark is known from a book written by Roskilde Canon Henrik Harpestreng (?-1244). Bloodletting was very popular and the belief that it worked remained until the late 19th century. We know from Hans Christian Andersen's journals that he had been bled several times during his life.

Pariah forever
Getting sick could turn into a serious matter for the people of the past. If illness meant that someone could no longer provide for himself and his family, and there was no close relative who could help out, there was little help to be had. There were no hospitals in the modern sense. Those hospitals that did exist were storage places for the sick, the old and the poor. They were not centres of treatment. Lepers and other groups considered a threat to society were forced into a life of isolation from their families and their communities at the Skt. Jørgensgård institutions outside the towns.

Public health

Medieval monasteries and Christian foundations that had provided some treatment and care of the sick and poor were closed after the Reformation in 1536. While medical knowledge was not sufficient to treat and combat infectious diseases and epidemics, the state, during the time of the absolute monarchy, sought to improve its health policies. The public's health was crucial for military strength and economic prosperity. King Frederik V founded Frederiks Hospital in Copenhagen in 1757, offering free treatment and care" and, starting in 1788, introduced a medical degree.

A new science

Medicine developed into a science in the late 19th century. New insights revolutionised the diagnosis and treatment of diseases. Houses of healing - hospitals – began to shoot up across the country. Nursing also emerged during this period as an auxiliary discipline to medicine, and the trained nurse had her daily duty in the sick wards.

Help for the insane

It wasn't just the physically ill that received treatment. Insanity was no longer considered caused by evil spirits. Doctors saw them as suffering from an affliction of the brain and they were to be helped and treated. The same was true for the "poor in spirit". Society should no longer neglect and confine the mentally handicapped. Instead, they were to be treated at specially designed institutions and cured if possible. When it came to construction of institutions for the insane and mentally handicapped location was of great importance. Doctors considered the beauty of nature to be part of the healing process and recommended institutions to be located in beautiful surroundings.

The scourge of tuberculosis

One special type of medical facility was the sanatorium. Many people of the day were forced to live in cramped, dark and damp housing – perfect breeding grounds for the tuberculosis bacteria. Located close to forests, beaches and water, sanatoriums sought to combat tuberculosis and other long-term illnesses with a combination of fresh air and good care.

The rise of the super hospital

Increasing social welfare and improved medical knowledge provided a one-two punch that helped to eliminate the great epidemics and widespread diseases. Life expectancy increased during the 20th century, and infant mortality fell dramatically. The welfare state's safety net of health insurance funds and nationalised healthcare ensured access to healthcare for all, regardless of social or economic status. Lifestyle, rather than living conditions, is probably the biggest factor in contracting illnesses today. And recent medical and technological advances have meant that hospitalisation is often only one treatment option. Bed rest's importance for the healing process has largely been abandoned in favour of modern medication and surgical techniques. Treatment times have been reduced considerably now that doctors no longer need to rely on the body's own regenerative powers. Small hospitals are being closed and replaced with large, highly specialised hospitals. The 2007 municipal reform has served to accelerate this trend.