a hospital where you could abandon children -- 5/31/18

Today's encore selection -- from Dr. Mütter's Marvels by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz. In the early 1800s, if you wanted to study medicine you went to Paris, where there was a proliferation of hospitals in part because each citizen was entitled to free medical treatment by royal decree. There was even a hospital where you could abandon your child:

"Where else but Paris would there be not one but two hospitals devoted entirely to the treatment of syphilis? Afflicted women were sent to the Hôpital Lourcine, a hospital filled with the most frightful instances of venereal ravages. The men were sent to the Hôpital du Midi, which required that all patients be publicly whipped as punishment for contracting the disease, both before and after treatment.

Le tour d'abandon

"Hôpital des Enfants-Malades was a hospital for ill children, and was nearly always filled to capacity. It had a grim mortality rate -- one in every four children who came for treatment died there -- but the doctors on staff assured visiting scholars that this was because most of the patients came from the lowest classes of society and thus were frequently brought to the hospital already in a hopeless or dying condition.

"Doctors specializing in obstetrics could visit Hôpital de la Maternité. It served laboring women only, and averaged eleven births a day. Some days, however, the numbers rose to twenty-five or thirty women, each wailing in her own bed, as the doctors and midwives (called sages-femmes) rushed among them. New mothers were allowed to stay nine days after giving birth, and the hospital even supplied them with clothing and a small allow­ance, provided they were willing to take the child with them. Not all of the women were.

"So the Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés for abandoned children was founded. Newborns arrived daily from Hôpital de la Maternité from women unable or unwilling to keep their children, as well as those infants whose mothers died while giving birth, as one in every fifty women who entered Hôpital de la Marernité did.

"The Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés also allowed Parisian citizens to come directly to the hospital and hand over a child of any age. The hospital encour­aged families to register and mark the children they were leaving so they might reclaim them at a later date, but the families who chose to do so were few. In fact, the vast majority of the children there had arrived via le tour.

"Le tour d'abandon ('the desertion tower') was merely a box attached to the hospital, constructed with two sliding doors and a small, loud bell. An in­fant was unceremoniously placed in the box, the door firmly closed behind it, and the bell was rung. Upon hearing the bell, the nurses on duty would go to le tour to remove the infant, replace the box to its original position, and wait. Every night, a dozen or so infants were received in precisely this way.

"For a while, it had been in vogue for wealthy, childless individuals to adopt children from the Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés to bring up as their own, but the practice had long since fallen out of fashion. [In 1831], more than sixteen thousand children were considered wards of the Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés, and of those, only twelve thousand would live to adulthood.

"There were hospitals for lunatic women and for idiot men, hospitals for the incurable, for the blind, for the deaf and dumb, and even for ailing elderly married couples who wished to die together -- they could stay in the same large room provided that the furniture they used to furnish their room became the property of the hospice upon their deaths.

"And perhaps most astonishing to the visiting American doctors, Paris had the École Pratique d 'Anatomie, which provided any doctor, for six dol­lars, access to his own cadaver for dissection. In America, cadaver dissec­tion was largely illegal. Many doctors resorted to grave robbing to have the opportunity to examine the human body fully. In Paris, twenty doctors at a time would whittle a human body down to its bones -- provided they could stand the smell and the ultimate method of disposal of the dissected corpses: At day's end, the decimated remains were fed to a pack of snarling dogs kept tied up in the back."


Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz


Dr. Mutter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine


Avery an imprint of Random House


Copyright 2014 by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz


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