A Dying Sailor Endows the First U.S. Charity Hospital

  • Medicine & Health
  • 1735

“Nothing being more certain than death, and nothing more uncertain than its hour…I bequeath…a hospital for the sick of the City of New Orleans, without anyone being able to change my purpose, and to secure the things necessary to succor the sick.”

So stated the last will and testament of an ailing sailor named Jean Louis who had become a shipbuilder in the new French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Having been founded just 18 years earlier, New Orleans was a ragged corner of civilization when Louis made his gift. By the city’s mere nineteenth year, though, it was distinguished by a pioneering, philanthropically created facility offering free care for the sick.

With New Orleans being settled primarily by people recruited from jails, poorhouses, and urban streets, there was plenty of business for Charity Hospital. The facility “was noted as one of the most efficient and useful charities in the country, given that New Orleans was exposed to greater varieties of human misery, vice, disease, and want than virtually any other American town,” states an official history. Among other maladies, the hospital treated record numbers of cases of venereal disease. In 1834 the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity assumed control of the hospital, and they gradually built it into a “celebrated institution of healing in the city.” The hospital was 269 years old (and located in its sixth building, a 2,680-bed landmark) when Hurricane Katrina struck. The facility closed and never reopened, though residents reluctant to let go of their beloved institution continue to argue for its revival.