It’s often been said that Jerusalem’s hospitals and clinics are a bastion of coexistence and cooperation in this otherwise fractious city.
Now a new exhibit, “Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis,” at the Tower of David Museum takes a look back at that history of healing.
“When you walk into a clinic, you’re just a person,” said Eilat Lieber, the museum’s director. “These are the places where all the conflicts and tensions are null and void.”
Muslims, Christians and Jews were all patients at the Hansen Hospital, a sprawling villa that once housed the city’s lepers (and was recently restored as a media center). Hadassah Hospital, the sprawling medical center that’s run into tough financial times, was an early savior for the city’s sick, founded by American Henrietta Szold, who first set up a visiting nurse rotation.
Likewise, it was the Franciscan monks, based in the Old City, who had the largest pharmacy in Ottoman Jerusalem; their balsam-based remedy saved many of the city’s residents during an 1860s plague of smallpox. And just up the road, the Spafford Children’s Center at the American Colony helped the people of Jerusalem regardless of religious affiliation.
A student of Jerusalem history, it was Lieber who first considered the idea of an exhibit about Israel’s medical history, while still working at her previous position at the Agnon House. At the time, she was engrossed in studying Agnon’s posthumous novel, Shira.
The book tells the story of a middle-aged Hebrew University professor who is bored with his wife — the ironically named Henrietta — and spends his days and nights searching for Shira, a nurse he met at a hospital years ago. There are two different endings to the novel, one of which has the professor spending the rest of his days at the Hansen Hospital, with Shira, who has contracted leprosy, like the rest of Hansen’s patients.
The story, by one of the city’s premier storytellers, offers the perfect backdrop for a portion of the exhibit, offering details about the city and the development of its medical establishments during the British Mandate period.
In its entirety, the exhibit, which is curated by historian Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, takes a longer, nonchronological look at the history of medicine in Jerusalem, touching on moments of sickness and health, healing and miracles over the course of thousands of years in the Holy City.
Unusually for the museum, which normally stays away from artifacts in its exhibits, this one includes objects gathered from near and far, including remedies and early pharmaceutical herbs and more modern prescriptions like Optalgin (created by Teva, Israel’s generic pharmaceutical maker, which was founded in Jerusalem and helped fund the exhibit) to camel-stenciled hospital bed rails from the 1920s and record books from Shaare Zedek Hospital.
It’s also larger than most of the recent exhibits, spread throughout the Citadel, from the interior rooms down to an outdoor medicinal herb garden. The exhibit runs through April 2015 and will be accompanied by ongoing events, including guided tours through the Old City based on the communities who brought their medical expertise to the people of Jerusalem.
“Medical establishments are islands of mercy,” said Shalev-Khalifa, “and no more so than in Jerusalem. We had someone here from the Health Ministry, and do you know what he said? Jerusalem has the longest life expectancy of all the cities in Israel, probably because of its strong communal life. It keeps people healthy.”