The history of one of the oldest hospitals in Pest and Europe in the modern sense of the word began in the early 18th century. A cemetery chapel stood on the site as early as the 11th century, and the Chapel of St. Roch was built on the ruins of the chapel in gratitude for the end of the plague of 1710-11, in honour of St. Roch and St. Rozalia. It was consecrated in 1717. The area, then still outside the city walls of Pest, was covered with plough-lands and, because of the plague, barracks had already been built to isolate the sick. The eponymous St. Roch, the patron saint of people recovered from the plague, cured plague patients by laying his hands on them, in the 14th century Italy and survived the disease himself, according to the legend.
After the Governor’s Council obliged the city to provide for the poor in 1724, the next plague epidemic (the last in our country) in 1739-51 brought about the creation of a hospital, which also had to be built outside the city. On the site of the former epidemic barracks next to the chapel, a xenodochium, or alms-house, was built, which provided shelter for the destitute as a social institution of the time. It was enlarged and turned into a hospital, as the undignified conditions of the existing hospital in Pest made it no longer suitable for public health services.
The new hospital opened in 1798 under the name of Pesti Polgári köz Ispotály (Civil Public Hospital of Pest), but it retained its function as an alms-house, since at that time a hospital was mainly used for isolating the poor and those suffering from infectious diseases. Almost half of the hospital beds were free of charge, with separate beds and rooms available for the wealthy. Later on, the number of patients increased, and new buildings were added in the 1830s and 1860s.
The main entrance to the building was the gateway that connected the hospital building with the chapel, and the stone plaque above it still bears the definition of the institution from the period: Pestanum Calamitosorum Domicilium, or the House of the Calamitous of Pest. At the same time, the hermitage in the chapel was abolished, because in the mid-18th century, a hermitage was built next to the chapel, and the hermit who was living there at the time helped with the chapel's tasks.
Modern medical education had begun short before that. Maria Theresa ordered the establishment of a faculty of medicine at the University of Nagyszombat in 1769, which was moved to Buda in 1777 and to Pest in 1784. Almost a century later, it moved to Üllői Road, where there was plenty of space for university clinics. These institutions were the ancestors of today's Semmelweis University.
As of the early 18th century, there was also a public hospital and alms-house in Buda, which was the predecessor of the St. John's Hospital, which stood on the site of today's Széna Square. It was also called into life by the dreaded plague epidemics, and during the epidemic of 1710, the wooden quarantine was converted into a hospital. When the medical faculty of the University of Nagyszombat moved to Buda, students did their internships here. St. John's Hospital was rebuilt in 1898, the old building was destroyed by the siege during World War II and the ruins were demolished shortly afterwards.
The first director of the Civil Public Hospital of Pest was Mihály Haffner, who had previously emphasized the importance of the new public hospital, and who had also interceded with the city council, the governor's council and the emperor for the hospital, which he ran until his death in 1806. The institution was renamed St. Roch (Rókus) Hospital in 1834.
A milestone in the history of the hospital was the work of Ferenc Flór, who first used ether and chloroform anaesthesia in the operations performed here in 1847. A year later, he was appointed the city's chief medical officer and director of St. Roch Hospital. As a doctor, Ferenc Flór participated in the 1848-49 War of Independence: he led the health department of the Ministry of Defence, reformed the organisation of military health care and introduced innovative procedures in military surgery, such as the use of chloroform.
From 1851, Ignác Semmelweis headed the obstetrics department of the hospital, which became a separate department. He discovered the importance of antiseptic handwashing among doctors, thus preventing maternal deaths from puerperal fever. His life and importance have been commemorated in a special exhibition.
In 1872-74, a cholera epidemic struck the country and the crowded capital, Budapest, which was formed at that time (from Pest and Buda). There was an urgent need to establish new hospitals, as the St. Roch Hospital in Pest and the old St. John Hospital on the Buda side were the only public hospitals in appropriate condition at the time; but the growing city required more hospitals and greater hospital capacity. In 1885, the new city hospital on Üllői Road, later known as St. Stephen Hospital, was opened. At the same time, patients were already being transferred here from the Rókus, relieving it of its burden. However, infectious diseases were still treated at the Rókus Barrack Hospital until the establishment of the Szent László (Ladislaus) Epidemic Hospital, the need for which was further highlighted by the cholera epidemic of 1892. Two years later, the modern St. Ladislaus Hospital was opened and the old barrack hospital was burnt down.
The turn of the century saw another medical innovation: in 1898, one of Europe's first X-ray laboratories opened in the Rókus Hospital. Shortly before that, in 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen had issued an official statement on the discovery of 'new kinds of rays'. Within a few years, the technology was put into the service of medicine.
In the 20th century, the St. Roch Hospital was renamed several times, becoming the Central Hospital in 1919 and in 1952 the Semmelweis Hospital of the Pest County Council.
During the Second World War, the basement of the hospital was used as a shelter with an emergency surgery. The building suffered extensive damage during the bombing and was restored in 1947. In 1956, the doctors also played their part in the revolution, treating hundreds of wounded. From the 1970s onwards, the building needed reconstructions, and over nearly two decades, all parts of the building were gradually renovated.
Translated by Zita Aknai
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