Belgium's Past and its Medical World

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Like the rest of Europe, all the old buildings in Ghent have a story. The old hospital was born out of the "Flemish version of the Romeo and Juliet story."

Photography by the authors

How may tourists meander into the 14th century and self-indulge in a Medieval meal? And do it easily?

Belgium is popular with the British as it’s just a hop over their English Channel. And the New York City branch of the Tourist Office for Flanders-Brussels is very efficient and the websites for both Ghent and Antwerp are encouragingly responsive.

Once you know what you want it’s just a matter of asking if there is an easy way to combine a vacation, a cruise maybe, that would bring you close to your special interest. European river cruises in general and Uniworld in particular make it all so easy because the heart of any medieval city is its port. The harbors were there long before there were roads.

We start in Ghent with our own personal guide provided by Uniworld. There are two complimentary shore excursions provided by our river boat today; everyone else is going to Bruges but we’ve been there before and have long wanted to visit Ghent.

Gido, our guide, quickly finds out our interests and off we go. We know that Ghent is famous for its architecture and Gido points out the beautiful homes that once were the guild houses of the merchant class that somehow managed to succeed financially in the Low Countries and fend off the pickpocketing fingers of the church and the aristocracy that, arguably, have made Southern Europe what it is.

“Only 3 to 4 percent of the people in Belgium go to church,” Gido says. “We are very secular here. Church is where we are hatched, matched and dispatched; baptized, married and receive funeral services.”

All the buildings have a past. Gido translates the language on the Bondmoyson building. It says, he tells us, ‘Socialist Workers Union, Our house: Union Moyson. Laborers of All Countries Unite!’

“Karl Marx wrote his manifesto in Brussels,” he explains. “After the Industrial Revolution Ghent was called ‘Manchester of the North.’ Mill owners smuggled in the ‘Spinning Jenny Machine’ in parts that would do the work of many laborers, the first example perhaps of Industrial Espionage in Europe.”

Not every photograph has historical context. Sometimes a pretty girl is just a pretty girl!

Gido reminds us to look up. In the Middle Ages few persons could read and visual signs

were understood better than written ones. A town’s history is illustrated on its walls.

We pass a sign for a boot-maker, and Ghent’s little boy who stands beside the former guild house of the wine inspectors whose job was to check the alcohol content of beverages. The statue of the boy is nearly as famous as the Manneken Pis of Brussels who is depicted emptying his bladder. Gido’s photo is not so famous. Other signs depict a guild house in the year 1602.

We stop before a hospital with the date 1363. It has, of course, a story — the “Flemish version of the Romeo and Juliet story,” says Gido and a tale of a quarrel and subsequent murders amongst two patrician families in 1352.

The guilty family was granted clemency provided it established a hospital for poor people and dedicated a church to St. Catherine, the patron saint of the mother of the murdered brothers. (We have enlarged the icon above the door.) The hospital, thus, reconciled the two families.

We move on to two of the oldest houses in Ghent, built in 1669. The one on the left with the blue door has, above the windows, carvings to show the “Seven Works of Mercy” — to one’s neighbor based on Christ’s prophecy of the Last Judgment.

Those duties carved on the walls are: Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, visiting those in prison and burying the dead.

We are able to photograph four of the carvings high up on the walls but we are getting ahead of ourselves, thinking about our forthcoming visit to the Medical Museum in Het Pand, the “cultural center of Ghent University at Onderbergen 1.”

We have never believed medical students are the cultural center of anything but are prepared to be surprised. And how! The museum has surgical instruments from the Greek and Roman era and many exhibits that relate to the history of medicine. Doctors are welcome to come and visit but requests are preferred three weeks in advance.

The museum is closed on Fridays but the curator, Professor (emeritus) J.J Delaey is kind enough to open his exhibits for readers of Physician’s Money Digest. Delaey, a former ophthalmic surgeon, takes special pleasure in showing us Roman ophthalmic instruments and giving us information about trachoma, which we have always thought a Third World infectious problem.

He shows us 6th century AD hernia bands, Roman iron vaginal speculi covered in leather, and Roman copper and iron catheters.

“Trachoma was widely found in the Gallo-Roman crusades and in the Napoleonic Wars,” Delaey says. “It was so common it was called military ophthalmia.”

French governments disagreed as to the epidemiology. Some army doctors said it was because uniform collars and headgear were too tight, impairing circulation to the eyes. Others felt it was due to contagion and the treatment should be proper hygiene for soldiers with a need for running water at camps — and that practice of discharging ill soldiers home was simply introducing the disease into the civilian community.

There was more to see. A genuine Laennec stethoscope that reminded us the originals were solid wooden tubes. And an original Chamberlen obstetrical forceps on a purple velvet pad. It’s one of the great stories in the history of medicine: how the Huguenot refugee Chamberlen family invented obstetrical forceps and kept it a secret for 125 years through four generations, the oldest Peter (1560-1631) is generally credited with the invention that surely gave the Chamberlens the edge in OB.

And lo and behold the museum even has a pair of the rare Mains of Palfyn, the two steel spoons the Belgian surgeon, Jean Palfyn (1650-1730) devised as his alternative to forceps.

We make time for a visit to the Museum Dr. Guislain in Belgium’s oldest psychiatric hospital. Opened in 1986, it lies on the outskirts of town on Jozef Guislainstraat 43, accessible by tram (line 1) or taxi.

There Yoon-Hee Lamot meets us for our visit to this presentation of both the history of psychiatry and its interesting art collection done by its patients. Exhibits vary from skulls trepanned by pieces of flint to leather muffs used as a replacement for the chains previously used in the Middle Ages.

Guislain graduated as a doctor in 1819 and was one of the first not only to specialize in treating the mentally ill but in fighting for their care to be humane. Son of an architectural family he used the refinements of architecture to help comfort his patients in his new hospital and encouraged them to embrace art for relief of their anguish.

Some of the art is appreciated even by persons like ourselves, who are not big on modern art, and some is even recognized by us as a sardine can, a zebra and a banana.

We have a final interest to look at in nearby Antwerp (apart from the Rubens House and the art in the Cathedral of our Lady) namely the Museum Plantin-Moretus/Prints Room, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has the two oldest printing machines in the world and on display, by chance right in front of us, the very plate used to print the original printed version of the Hippocratic Oath,

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.