Johan Christian Fabricius at St. Jørgen’s Hospital in 1778

On 16 August 1778, the Danish natural historian and entomologist Johan Christian Fabricius visited St. Jørgen’s Hospital. He had been on countless trips around Europe and in that year he visited Norway. After his travels, he published an account of his journey and, in the second volume, he describes his travels and the places he visited. The last stop on the journey was Bergen, where he stayed for six days and visited, among other places, St. Jørgen’s Hospital.

Portrait professor Fabricius. University of Bergen Library.
Portrait of the Danish naturalist Johan Christian Fabricius, from his travelogue ‘Extract of Prof. Joh. Christ. Fabricis’ Journey to Norway in the Year 1778’
University of Bergen Library.

The account
Fabricius writes that there were 88 residents in the hospital who were afflicted by ‘this curious disease’. It was no doubt quite an experience for him to visit the hospital and the patients afflicted by the disease. He describes the symptoms of nodules on the face and elsewhere on the body, intense itching, the loss of eyebrows and a hoarse voice.

He believed that the disease was caused by poor people’s way of life, not least their diet, which consisted only of fish, cod liver oil and fish liver. Moreover, the damp air and the many colds people caught out at sea caused the outbreak of the disease. At the time, a number of doctors were also of the opinion that too much fish and fatty fish products were harmful, and Fabricius had likely been told this during his visit.

Fabricius was critical of the sick being seen as incurable and therefore not receiving medication. Patients had to buy their own plasters and ointment to alleviate the intense itching. He was in no doubt that the disease could be stopped in its infancy. He pointed out that several people had supposedly been cured but soon became ill again when they returned to their former diet and way of life.

Book describing professor Fabricius' journey in Norway in 1778. Photo: University of Bergen Library.
Bergen was the last stop of Fabricius’ journey through Norway. In the last paragraph of this page towards the end of the book, his description of his visit to St. Jørgen’s starts: ‘St. Jørgen’s Hospital is also situated in the City and is specifically for those with Leprosy. The building is old and run down, (…)’.
University of Bergen Library.  

Read Fabricius’ original text
An edition of Fabricius’ travelogue, which belonged to the Bergen City Museum’s library, has been digitalised by the University of Bergen Library and can be seen here.

Below is an excerpt from Fabricius’s book, in which he describes his visit to St. Jørgen’s Hospital.

Excerpt of Professor Johan Christian Fabricii Travels to Norway in the year 1778

St. Jørgen’s Hospital is also situated in the city and is intended for actual lepers. The building is old and run down, with a large room in which the sick stay during the day, and next to it are small chambers where they sleep two and two at night. There are now 88 members who are afflicted to various degrees by this curious disease. It is a frightful, repulsive sight to see such a multitude of people suffering, in all their limbs. Nowhere is the disease prevalent, but it is found here and there among the poor on the coasts of Trondheim and the diocese of Bergen. It is not really contagious, as the attendants at the hospital are never attacked by this disease. But it often attacks all the inhabitants of a house at once, since they all live in the same way. The disease manifests itself in various ways, with a hoarse voice, pain in the throat, and nodules on the face, hands, and other parts of the body. The whole face becomes deformed, the itching is unbearable, and when they itch, a pungent smelling liquid flows out of the nodules. Their eyebrows fall out, but not other hair. Sometimes, though rarely, it attacks, like a severe bout of venereal disease, the nose and the other cartilaginous parts of the body, and the fingers and feet fall off by themselves through decay. Patients stayed alive for some thirty, forty, fifty years, although others suddenly suffocate when the nodules fill their throat.

The true cause of this disease is probably how the poor live. On the coast, they live almost entirely on fatty fish, cod liver oil, fish liver, often without bread and liquor. It is natural that this unhealthy, fatty, and fish-oil-filled nourishment makes the lymph and blood suffer. Added to this is the damp air and the frequent colds caught on sea voyages, which often give rise to the outbreak of the disease.

The wretched in this hospital are regarded as incurable, as unfortunate, to be supported until their death. They do not therefore receive any medication. There is no doubt, however, that a disease which lasts so many years must be stopped in its infancy, before it takes too much control. Indeed, there are a good deal of instances of people being cured, although they are commonly attacked by the disease once more when they begin their usual way of life at home.

Their subsistence at the hospital is also only moderate, they have, besides free board, light and heat, four shillings a day to spend at will, but they must spend a small amount on plasters and ointments to relieve the excruciating itching. They are also allowed to make shoes for the nearby farmers, which affords them some employment and earnings. The change in lifestyle, at least not living entirely on fish, means that they drag around their sad and miserable bodies in this state for many years.

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