Left: Exterior of Sacra Infirmaries, Malta; R: Interior
On a small island near Sicily, where today one hears the rich Maltese language—a mixed tongue of Italian, Arabic, English, and even French—a hospital was established in 1574 by the Knights of St. John. These aristocratic, militaristic, and religious men were also known as the Hospitalers, in part for their devotion to the sick.
They began as a brotherhood associated with an Amalfian hospital in Jerusalem dedicated to St. John. When the Saracens in the twelfth century threatened this Catholic order, the Knights fled to Acre, then Cyprus, then to Rhodes. After the Ottomans expelled them from there, the Emperor Charles V in 1530 gave them the island of Malta, where they would flourish for centuries. They have had a variegated history and reputation—falling on good times and on bad, high and low moral ground. But one aspect is irrefutable, that being the grandiose hospital erected in 1574 on the Mediterranean shoreline in Valletta, the capital city of Malta, near the fortress of St. Elmo.
It was not just the picturesque site and the mere act of the erection of the great hospital that brought fame and respect to the Knights. This hospital, the Sacra Infermeria (Holy Infirmary), intact though now used as a conference center and museum, established methods that are now standard practice, such as frequently changing the bed linen and using clean (silver) plates and utensils to prevent bacterial infection. The Sacra Infermeria also employed chemists who were known for their inventive curatives such as using honey to treat wounds. In its day, the Hospital of the Knights could shelter 900 patients and charitably admitted everyone—from beggars and slaves to the aristocracy, an unusually non-discriminatory practice for that time.
Sally Metzler, PhD, is the director of the art collection at the Union League Club in Chicago.