Tuesday, August 30, 2011

hidden museum

In Paris where can you lay on a patch of grass beneath centuries old trees surrounded by superb 17th century architecture – and yet be almost alone? The answer is at the Hopital St Louis, a structure that was built just outside the ancient city walls to keep plague victims away from other inhabitants of Paris. Now the area is part of the 10th arrondissement and not far from where the stolen Mona Lisa was hidden under a bed a hundred years ago. It was constructed in a similar style and at a similar time to the far more well-known Place des Vosges, but in my opinion, this quadrangle is in many ways a more interesting place to visit.
It was Henri IV who ordered the construction of the hospital, but he was assasinated by Ravaillac before the edifice was finished. It was finally opened in 1618 during another outbreak of the plague, with up to six patients per bed! Over 68,000 thousand people died from the plague, a third of the population of Paris at that time. Since 1773 the hospital has been in permanent use and is today one of the 22 public hospitals within the Paris borders. Some 2500 people work here.

Since new buildings were added 1984-89, the old ones are basically only administrative. It was the first hospital in the world to teach dermatology, still one of its specialties.For the next two centuries it dealt with many outbreaks of infectious diseases, slowly building up world-renown in the field of Dermatology. This has led to another curiousity in the hospital, perhaps the most unusual and secretive museum in Paris, the Musee des Moulages (Museum of wax moldings).

Throughout the 19th century, moulds were made of all known diseases that affected the skin. The story goes that one of the dermatology doctors walked through a passage near Place de la Republique passing a fruit and vegetable stall. The stall's owner fashioned his wares in wax to appeal to more clients and that gave the doctor an idea. Why not do wax molds of skin diseases to help in research and diagnosis - remember photography was just beginning with Dauguerre in his studio (also in the 10th arrondissement). Now over 4,000 of these have been put on display in one of the hospital’s 17th century buildings. It is a creepy, fascinating place, but unfortunately rarely open to visitors, and only when pre-arranged.

Note: the garden is not always open at weekends, but should be from May to September.

Cara - Tuesday


  1. Like the post about the Mona Lisa, this is another interesting post. I enjoy reading about and seeing pictures of places I will never get to see in person. Thank you.

  2. Thanks Joe. Talk about a bizarre museum! I talked my way in without an appointment somehow and was gobsmacked - that English phrase that says so much - by all these wax lifelike models of diseases; mishapen noses, harelips, scurvy, leprous limbs. But it made sense for the doctors and helped in research at a time when there were no xrays, even photos so medical staff could recognize, diagnose and treat. The difficult ones to see were the goiters and syphillis symptoms...Cara

  3. Cara, I love Paris for so many reasons. Now you've given me one more. Goiter moulds!