The Sacra Infermeria
One of the most imposing buildings in Valletta is the former “Sacra Imfermeria” of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, now popularly known as the Mediterranean Conference Centre, which is located adjacent to Fort St Elmo and overlooking the Grand Harbour.
Work on this vast edifice started during late 1574 during the reign of Grand Master Jean de la Cassiere (1572-82) and was extended several times over the years. The “Old Ward” which is the main attraction was extended into the “Great Ward” during the years 1660 to 1666 under the rule of the Cotoners. This hall measuring 155 metres in length, was at that time one of the largest in Europe and was described as “one of the grandest interiors in the world”. The Sacra Infermeria was considered to be one of the best hospitals in Europe and could accommodate 914 patients in an emergency.
In 1676 Grand Master Nicholas Cotoner (1663-80) founded the School of Anatomy and Surgery at the Infirmary. This school was to be the forerunner of the Medical School of the University of Malta. Surgeon (Later Sir) David Bruce discovered the undulant fever germ (Brucellosis) in 1887, when the Hospital was used by the British Military Forces as the Garrison Hospital (1800-1920). During World War II the building suffered serious damages and approximately one third of the complex was destroyed.
When the Order of St John of Jerusalem left the Maltese Islands, the French took over the Infirmery in June 1798, just after the occupation of the Island by General Napoleon Bonaparte. The Infirmary now became known as “Grand Hopital” or “Hopital Militaire”. The French carried out various structural alterations to improve the ventillation, sanitation, and lighting of the hospital.
The uprising of the Maltese against the French occupiers on 2nd September 1798 meant the decline of the hospital as drugs, fresh meat, and fruit were no longer available at the hospital.
The situation in the hospital and indeed in the whole island was so bad that General Claude Henri B. Vabois, the commander in chief of the French forces surrendered the island on 5th September 1800 to the English forces.
From 1800 till 1918 during the British Rule, the Centre served as a Station Hospital. Situated very near to the Grand Harbour, the hospital was within easy reach of the sick and wounded servicemen as hospital ships brought them in. For this reason the Station Hospital was mainly used as a sorting base and also as a centre for dangerously ill patients that could not be moved any further.
The end of World War I saw the end of the Station Hospital. The Infirmary’s Hall was turned into the Police Headquarters as from 1918 till 1940. During the ensuring bombardments of Valletta, during World War II, the Mediterranean Conference Centre received four direct hits.
Part of what remained standing of the Long Ward was the Entertainment Centre for the allied troops and became known as the Command Hall, as from 1945 till 1950.
Several attempts at restoration and reconstruction of the derelict building were made in 1959 and 1975, with a final effort during 1978 when the building was transformed into the present Mediterranean Conference Centre. The Centre was inaugurated on the 11th February 1979, and was awarded the coveted Europa Nostra Diploma of Merit for the “superb restoration of the Sacra Infermeria and its adaption for use as a conference centre.”
Since its inception as a conference centre an ongoing restoration and maintenance programme has kept the unique historical character of this national monument, while providing a modern venue able to handle major international conferences, exhibitions, banquets and theatrical events. The MCC, the flagship of cenference venues on the Island, is now renowned for its outstanding services and facilities.
The Sacra Infermeria Hall
Sir Temi Zammit Hall
Michel’Angelo Grima Hall
La Vallette Hall
La Cassiere Hall
David Bruce Hall
The Business Centre
The Sacra Infermeria between 1530 & 1978
The arrival of the Hospitaller Knights of St. John of Jerusalem to the Islands in 1530 saw the institution of a number of new hospitals on Malta. The Knights concentrated their forces at Birgu, the maritime center of Malta. There they established their first hospital on the Island which was initially of a temporary character. In 1532, after expropriating and demolishing a number of buildings on the foreshore of the town, the building of a permanent hospital – the Holy Infirmary – was started. Besides catering for members of the Order, the hospital was also open to male civilians and also cared for orphans and foundlings. A few years after its completion the infirmary it was enlarged by the addition of another storey. While the hospital size was suitable for day-to-day requirements, it was unsuitable in times of emergency. It functioned as a regular hospital until 1575 when the Valletta Holy Infirmary was completed. At Birgu, apart from the Holy Infirmary, the Italian Knights kept a small hospital in their own auberge. This hospital was maintained until the Knights moved to their new quarters in Valletta.
Following the Knights victory of the Great Siege by the Turks in 1565, the Order decided to built a new fortified city guarding the major harbour of the Islands. A new Holy Infirmary was planned, the site chosen being the south-eastern side of Valletta. The building, started in 1574, consisted originally of one long ward. It was subsequently enlarged in 1583 by the addition of a new block, and remodeled in 1662 and in the eighteenth century. The number of beds varied throughout the centuries. In the late eighteenth century there were 554 single beds which could be increased to 900 in case of emergency. The majority of the beds (370) were provided with canopies of various colour hues, and woolen mattresses. The hospital wards were open for all whether members of the Order, civilians, or slaves. There was also provisions for the deposition of foundlings. The Valletta Holy Infirmary was one of the best serviced hospitals in Europe and was favorably described by a number of foreign visitors to the Islands during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The Rev. Henry Teonge in 1675 described the hospital as being “so Broade that 12 men may with ease walk a breast up the midst of it; and the beds are on each syd, standing on four yron pillars with white curtens and vollands and covering extremely neate, and kept cleane and sweet; the sick served all in sylver plate”. A contemporary detailed description of the wards was made in 1687 by Mr. G. Wood. This description of the wards with canopies on four poster beds confirm the depiction of the wards shown in a 1588 engraving probably by Filippus Thommasinus and the 18th century painting of “Blessed Gerald” painted by Favray and held by the National Museum of Fine Arts. Seventeenth century depictions of the wards of the Sacra Infirmeria, including a 1650 German engraving by Christian von Osterhausen and a probably Mattia Preti painting of the “Blessed Gerald” held in the former Infirmeria, show slightly different arrangements where the beds are not four-posters but retain their canopies.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century a decline set in the general affairs of the Order including the Holy Infirmary’s management. In 1786 the hospital was described adversely by John Howard. He wrote that “The ceiling is lofty but being of wood is now turned black; the windows being small, and the walls hung round with dusty pictures, this noble Hall makes but a gloomy appearance…. All wards were dirty and offensive, so much so that it was necessary to use perfuming, and the physician had to keep his handkerchief to his face while doing his rounds… the patients…. were served by the most dirty, ragged and unfeeling and inhuman persons I ever saw. The decline of the Holy Infirmary continued during the two-year French interlude between 1798 and 1800. The French established their first hospital at Mdina on the first day of their occupation, but four days later an order was issued to reserve the Holy Infirmary, renamed Grand Hopital, for the exclusive use of their troops. The civilian patients were transferred first to the Casa delle Alunne and afterwards to the Monastery and Church of St. Mary Magdalen which became the Hopital Civil. The Holy Infirmary thus started its phase as a military hospital, a function it served also under British dominion until the 22 December 1919 when it was handed over to the Civil Government. It has subsequently been used for a variety of purposes, until in 1978 it was converted into the Mediterranean Conference Center.