Updated: Jan 19, 2022
One of the Order of St. John’s greatest successes during their time in Malta was the setting up of the Valletta Sacra Infermeria, which would achieve renown as one of the best hospitals of its time. Yet, despite its high standards of medical care, and the expertise of the staff employed there, for a long time, there was no medical school on the island where Maltese students could be prepared for a career in this field.
To remedy a situation where promising local students were sponsored by the Order to study abroad, in 1676, the Spanish Grand Master Nicolás Cotoner set up the School of Anatomy and Surgery. Over time, this institution would be led by a number of prominent Maltese surgeons, including the celebrated Gabriele Henin - the first Professor of Anatomy in Malta, and a surgeon of great international renown.
Born in Valletta on 25th March 1696, Henin most likely obtained his early education from the Collegium Melitense, set up by the Order of Jesuits in 1592, before continuing his studies at the Sacra Infermeria School of Anatomy and Surgery. At this time, however, only theoretical anatomy and surgery would have been taught here, as, in those days, dissections on cadavers were not approved by the Church, and moreover, there were no amenities to carry out such work.
In 1716, however, a dissection room was built and furnished with all the necessary requirements, and when, in 1720, the Italian knight Fra Marc’Antonio Zondadari was appointed Grand Master, he directed that post-mortem examinations should be undertaken at the Sacra Infermeria to help the study of anatomy. As there was nobody on the island qualified to teach practical dissection, Zondadari sent the promising young surgeon Gabriele Henin to study for three years at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, Italy, at the Order’s expense.
While Grand Master Zondadari did not have the opportunity to see the start of the dissections, since he died whilst Henin was still in Florence, his successor, the Portuguese Antonio Manoel de Vilhena, appointed the young surgeon to the post of Head of the School of Anatomy and Surgery upon his return to the island in 1724. Henin was thus the first to introduce practical anatomy lessons in Malta, whilst also giving lectures in Italian in physiology, pathology, and obstetrics.
He was tasked with carrying out all post-mortem examinations of hospital patients who died of unknown causes, which he used as demonstrations to his students. Indeed, such classes of dissection of the human body were now made compulsory for all students: both the 1729 and 1739 regulations governing the teaching of anatomy and surgery required the attendance of all students at anatomical dissections once a week during the winter months - the task was rendered impossible during the hot summer due to the smell of putrefying bodies.
Under the leadership of Gabriele Henin, the School of Anatomy and Surgery at the Sacra Infermeria would go on to produce a number of exceptional pupils, including the renowned surgeon Michelangelo Grima. Grima, who had followed a similar early career path, including studying at the same hospital in Florence, and who later on also became Head of the School of Anatomy and Surgery, clearly considered Henin as his mentor, and later collected some of his former teacher’s unpublished notes. In particular, he praised his exceptional skills as a very talented dissector.
In addition to his role as Professor of Anatomy, Henin also practised surgery at the Sacra Infermeria and was considered to be particularly adept at ophthalmic surgery and trepanning of the skull in cases of depressed fractures of the cranium. A decree of the Order’s treasury shows that apart from his regular salary of 12 scudi per month, the young surgeon was also granted an additional 10 scudi for every operation of lithotomy - a highly complex procedure to extract bladder stones through an incision in the perineum. Later on, he was also given a further allowance of 5 scudi for every operation of cataract, although in this case, it was expressly stated that the payment was to be made only if the operation was successful.
His new ideas in surgery and early successes soon made him one of the most promising young surgeons of his time, and his excellent reputation soon spread all over Europe, with patients from various countries travelling to Malta to consult him, and to have cataracts and stones removed by him. At least one person from Messina was also successfully operated on for a tumour in his back.
Between 1725 and 1754, Henin was president of the Maltese Medical Academy, for which he wrote and read several papers on various medical topics. Unfortunately, they remained mostly unpublished after he became suddenly ill. His only known publication Observatio Chirurgico-anatomica in Nosocomio S. Joannis Hyerosolymitano, published in Messina in 1748, dealt with the successful removal of a tumour of the back in two minutes' time. Other manuscript notes belonging to him were apparently collected by his student Michelangelo Grima, but these appear to have been lost. Henin stopped working in 1753 due to serious mental health problems, and he died the following year on 15th October 1754, at the age of 58.
During his distinguished career, Gabriele Henin can be said to have laid the basis of modern practical medicine at the Medical School of Malta. He also reorganised anatomical teaching, and helped bring renown to the Sacra Infermeria School of Anatomy and Surgery, thus truly earning himself the title of the "Father of Anatomy in Malta".
The latest development in the long history of the Sacra Infermeria came only last year, when a new virtual museum, titled ‘Reliving The Sacra Infermeria’, was inaugurated. The idea of a virtual museum, which brings together history and technology, was brought about by the need to satisfy visitors’ curiosity about the building’s former history without interrupting ongoing conferences or theatre performances that are regularly held here. Now, by downloading a mobile application that makes use of augmented reality, one can once more relive the building’s former days as a hospital.
Re-Living the Sacra Infermeria is a project co-financed through the European Regional Development Fund.
Cassar, P. (1983). From The Holy Infirmary of the Knights of St John to the Mediterranean Congress Centre. Malta
Cassar, P. (1969). Malta and its Medical School. Chest-piece, 3(1), 11-15.
Grima, J. F. (2018, December 16). The Origins of Malta's Medical School - December 19, 1676. The Sunday Times of Malta, pp. 60-61.
Rozena, S. Disease and Dissection: A History of Surgery in Malta. Museum of the Order of St. John. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://museumstjohn.org.uk/disease-and-dissection-a-history-of-surgery-in-malta/