In 1735, Charity Hospital wrapped its arms around a fledgling city’s poor
On Nov. 16, 1735, Jean Louis, a French sailor and boat builder, died in New Orleans and left his savings of 10,000 livres (slightly more than $1,600 today) to help establish a hospital for the poor of the city. The first Charity Hospital opened on May 10, 1736, at Chartres and Bienville streets, just 18 years after the founding of the city.
The present Charity Hospital, at 1532 Tulane Ave., was for years a renowned teaching hospital, and its emergency room was world-famous. For more than a decade, the state-owned hospital – known commonly as “Big Charity” — sat closed and mostly untouched after sustaining heavy damage from Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing flood in August 2005. Its future is uncertain. A $6.4 million project to clean it out began on Jan. 9 and is expected to take 180 days. From there, the building will be turned over the state Division of Administration, which will decide what to do with it.
- Although the first Charity Hospital didn’t open until 1736, medical care for the poor was available shortly after New Orleans’ founding because Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, the city’s founder, brought medical tools and hospital instruments with him.
- Because of Charity’s famous trauma center, it was designated as the place to take visiting dignitaries in an emergency, including presidents and, in September 1987, Pope John Paul II.
- Although Charity is famed for the skills of the staffers who have worked there, it also has been acclaimed for its Art Deco architecture and details, especially Enrique Alferez’s massive, intricate grille over the main entrance.
- The hospital’s original name was St. John’s Hospital, though it was referred to as L’Hôpital des Pauvres de la Charité (The Charity Hospital for the Poor). Until Hurricane Katrina forced Charity to close, it had been the second oldest continuously operating public hospital in the United States. Only Bellevue Hospital in New York City, which opened on March 31, 1736, was older — by six weeks.
- Before the 1939 hospital was built, Charity Hospital operated in the French Quarter, on Basin Street and at two sites in what became the Central Business District, including one occupied now by the Roosevelt Hotel.
- “Big Charity,” a documentary about the rise and death of Charity Hospital, won a Jury Award for Best Louisiana Feature at the 2014 New Orleans Film Festival.
For centuries, Charity Hospital was an integral part of the city. Thousands of doctors, nurses and other health-care personnel trained there — many came from all over the United States so they could work in the emergency room — and it was always the place where the city’s poor could go for care, with many locals who were born at Charity also dying there decades later.