A lot of people living in Istanbul may think that it’s a crazy city. Well, sometimes this may not be the case although the crowded streets and heavy traffic says otherwise. It is a place that one can surely feel at peace as its name actually denotes. The French La Paix (Lape) Hospital was the first mental hospital in Turkey and it tells a story of the battle for peace.
How remarkable it is, and whether it’s worth reading or writing about it certainly depends on a lot of factors. Its long history goes back to the time of the Ottoman Empire. Among some of the interesting facts surrounding this hospital is where its name comes from. It is a witness and symbol of tolerance that many modern societies lack today.
Looking back, the history of La Paix Hospital dates to the Crimean War between 1853 and 1856. The war was between Russia and France’s allies, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia, what is today known as Italy. One wonders whether it was a good war or a bad one. Of course, just like any other war there are repercussions. On the other hand, not all wars may necessarily be pertained as a “notoriously incompetent international butchery”. A lot of people lost their lives during battle, but a greater number succumbed to death as a result of wounds sustained and diseases. Had there been proper medical treatment, the number of deaths could have been lower. The exact estimate of casualties is not available although on average both sides are said to have lost approximately 350,000 – 400,000 people. This is the population of averagely two modern European cities.
Wounded Turkish soldiers were nursed by French nuns, the Daughters of Saint Vincent de Paul’s charity (Filles de la Charite de Saint Vincent de Paul). At the end of the war, more than 300 nuns had come to Istanbul to continue their mission. Despite being availed with 20 barracks and 300 beds to nurse their patients, the nuns did not own a building of their own thus at times running their work through mobile hospitals. It was however just a matter of time before the situation could change.
The Royal Gift
In 1857, Sultan Abdülmecid I made a truly royal present to the nuns as a show of gratitude for their help. He allocated 8,000 square meters of land in Şişli to the nuns. In addition, he donated about 50,000 francs for the construction of the hospital and in 1858, the French La Paix Hospital was opened. Since then, the hospital has been under the direction of the Daughters of Charity except for a few years during World War I.
The newly opened hospital offered a haven not only to mentally ill patients but was also the first hospital to accept female patients. Istanbul was a symbol of tolerance to people of different religions and ethnicities who were living together. At the centre of it was the La Paix hospital run by catholic nuns who indiscriminately accepted all kinds of patients.
Life in La Paix Hospital
There were two kinds of activities at La Paix hospital, one of which was about young people. Under this were orphanages, classes and apprentice workshops. More than 100 orphans from the orphanage were trained as black smiths, carpenters, tailors or shoemakers. The hospital was also involved in charity with almost 50 to 60 people coming to the nuns to seek for help each day. In addition to receiving the necessary basic needs such as medical care, food and clothing, they were also taught gardening, fruit and vegetable growing as well as livestock and poultry. Bearing all this in mind, the nuns were always doing their best to help their patients adapt to social life. They realised that the best way to make a fresh start was through training and incorporating new skills among the affected people.
The hospital graduated into a luxurious facility approximately 20 years later with Dr. Luigi Mongeri as the head doctor. Together with Cemile Sultan a sister to Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the hospital commenced offering specialised psychiatric aid in 1877. This attracted quite a number of patients many of whom were high ranked and rich patients such as ottoman civil servants, diplomats and famous people.
Under head doctor Mazhar Osman, the hospital continued offering education and this time it included medical education to his assistants. He started mentoring programs, case presentations, holding seminars and even conferences. Participants came in from different institutions to attend the conferences which attracted a lot of media to cover the events. A number of articles relating to the conferences and cases were published. It was during this time that for the first time in Turkey psychiatric studies were covered. Psychiatry was now fast developing as a science and the Turkish society started to accept.
It may seem like a natural thing in today’s world but at that time, it was an evolution for Turkey. During the commencement of the 20th century, psychiatry and psychology were developing rapidly with Freud’s theory being the most famous and popularised one. However, Freud was not alone. Owing to the timing and scientific achievements, in a way Freud was following in the trend.
Following the death of Dr. Osman in 1951, the hospital changed the focus of its development. Conferences and mentoring programs were put to an end although development continued. Doctors were now applying new and the best psychiatric methods in European practice.
It is to be noted that 60-70 years ago, the psychiatric methods were not always good let alone safe. Though psychiatrists were constantly driven by a desire to help, at times cruel and rudimentary methods were applied. Patients endured not only pain from illness but also as result of the method of treatment, one can say that this was the price of medical progress.
La Paix hospital can be located today a few steps from the Cevahir Mall in Şişli. Through a couple of skyscrapers, there is a humble facade of a two storey building which houses the hospital. With good vivid imagination, one can see through the history of this building; how many people had passed through its doors, those who had fought for their lives long after the war had come to an end.
I believe that the doctors in La Paix Hospital had many battles of their own. These battles were for the sole purpose of attaining peace and humanity among human beings. Doctors, nuns, Muslims and Catholics altogether, this kind of work and mutual tolerance is only possible if everyone is at peace with themselves.
p.s. Special thanks to Andre Kuzmenko for inspiring me.
Psychologist, copywriter and a fan of zenart. Had a fresh start here, in Istanbul. Now I want people to know more about this fascinating city. There are so many stories to tell… :)