1920s - 1950s

1960 to 2005




Tulane & Charity

History of Tulane SOM

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Famous Alumni



The history of Tulane University School of Medicine’s involvement with Charity Hospital is long and storied. Tulane, originally founded as the Medical College of Louisiana in 1834, has long played a role in both caring for the poor and shaping the future of the hospital.

In reading the history of both, two themes emerge. First, Charity has been destroyed or on the brink of closing many times before, due to both natural disasters and political neglect. Hurricane Katrina may simply be the latest incarnation of a recurring theme in New Orleans—that of destruction and rebirth. Second, what captivates people about Charity is not so much the building itself, which is already the sixth building to carry that name, but rather what Charity stands for. The ideals of humanism and caring for the most vulnerable in our society has long been a driving force in both medicine as a whole and Tulane University School of Medicine specifically. How these laudable goals emerge in the changing political and economic landscape of the twenty-first century is a story that is still unfolding.

The Early Years: French Colonialism

In 1699, France established its first permanent colony in the Gulf Coast. Based first in Mobile, the colony sought to exploit the area around the Mississippi River for trade and natural resources. In 1718, Bienville founded the city of New Orleans on a small crescent-shaped area of land in a bend of the Mississippi, in order to better take advantage of trading with the area the mighty river traversed.

Health of the nascent city soon became a primary concern. Early on Bienville noted “the inclemency of the air” surrounding New Orleans, and soon colonists were dying of tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. In 1731, the private company that had been granted rights to the resources of the city failed. Bienville, the city’s founder, was blamed for the company’s financial failure and returned to France disgraced. The colony returned to control of the French king.

The first record of any medical facility in the city comes in 1722, with the founding a small military hospital known as the Royal Hospital, located on Ursuline Street in what is now the French Quarter. Early medicine was ill-prepared to face the realities of living in a tropical climate: infectious diseases and nutritional deficiencies were rampant. In 1726, some much needed relief arrived in the city, with the arrival of Ursuline nuns and the founding of a convent. They also contracted to run the hospital and provide care. The nuns were dissatisfied with running a hospital and convent in the same small building, and continually pressed the colonial government to build a larger hospital. In perhaps an example of foreshadowing, in August 1732 a fierce hurricane struck the city and completely destroyed the existing Royal Hospital. A new hospital was built and completed in 1734.

In spite of poor conditions and limited medical knowledge, Royal Hospital still provided better care than that received by the city’s poor and indigent. By decree, Royal Hospital could only care for French military personnel and those in the King’s service. Appalled by the plight of the poor in trying to obtain care, a well-off shipbuilder named Jean Louis bequeathed his estate to the founding of a Charity Hospital for the poor. He died in January 1736, and on May 10, 1736, the first Charity Hospital opened its doors in a house at Chartres and Bienville Streets.

Charity Hospital has taken the form of many buildings in different locations. The second hospital, built in 1743, and the third, in 1785, were located near a ship-turn basin at the edge of the French Quarter. At that time, boats entering the port of New Orleans did not sail up the Mississippi; rather, they came through an inlet from the Mississippi sound to Lake Pontchartrain, sailed down Bayou St. John and the now-defunct Carondelet Canal to a large basin where the ships could turn around and proceed back to the lake after discharging passengers and cargo. The location of this ship-turn basin is the present-day Basin Street. The fourth building, built in 1815, was on Canal Street at the present location of the Fairmont Hotel. The fifth, built in 1832, and the sixth and current hospital, built in 1939, were located in the same location on Tulane Avenue.

In 1763, at the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War, Spain took control of New Orleans and all of Louisiana west of the Mississippi. Spanish control resulted in few changes for the French inhabitants, who naturally felt tension towards their new government. In 1779, Charity Hospital was again reduced to rubble by a hurricane, resulting in much suffering among the poor of the city. However the Cabildo, or Spanish town council, took no steps to rebuild the hospital. Only in 1782, after a full three years with minimal care for the poor in the city, did a wealthy Spanish patron named Almonester donate a then-fortune of 114,000 pesos for the construction of a new Charity Hospital. Almonester also set in motion plans to have a hospital generate some form of revenue, as up until this point it had relied entirely on donations. Plans included a cattle ranch, a lime factory, a brick factory, and slaves he donated to the hospital, including a mulatto named Domingo who was learned in surgery and given authority to “exercise the function of head of the surgery ward.”

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