Hospital on the outskirts – Huge effort by 19th-century decision-makers improved healthcare

Hungarian version of the article: Kórház a város szélén – A XIX. században hatalmas erőfeszítéseket tettek a döntéshozók a jobb betegellátásért

Written by: Csaba Domonkos

September 28, 2020 at 9:00 AM

The construction of Saint John's Hospital (Szent János Kórház) began 125 years ago, on a hillside where vineyards had once stood. The 300-bed modern hospital was much needed, as the old building of the hospital, on the present-day Széna Square, was gravely overcrowded. Doctors feared that the influx of workers to the capital caused by the construction of projects connected to the upcoming national millennium would lead to catastrophe.

Pestbuda has published several articles on how decision-makers took steps to improve healthcare in 19th-century Budapest.

The old St. John's Hospital on what is now Széna square around 1895 (Photo: FSZEK Budapest Collection)

Nevertheless, in May 1895, Dr Kálmán Müller, the director of Rókus Hospital, complained of overcrowding in the capital's Hospital Committee. The Pesti Hírlap reported on the issue:

"The overcrowding in hospitals is so great that care solutions must be found until the new hospitals are completed. (...) On average, 60-70 patients are discharged from hospital each day, and the same number admitted. However, a further 60–70 are turned away. Naturally, many of these later die."

The director added that 1077 patients were being cared for in the hospital on Üllői Road, which was planned to house 560. He believed that an influx of workers to the construction sites connected to the national millennium would exacerbate the problem. At the time, the new hospital was already under construction along the line of the Cogwheel Railway. Plans were to construct a 300-bed hospital in the Buda hills, where the phylloxera epidemic had killed the vineyards.

The entrance of the new hospital in the 7 August 1989 issue of Vasárnapi Újság

The decision to build a new, modern hospital in Buda had been made in 1887. The institution was meant to replace the old Saint John's Hospital, the oldest such institution in Buda. Founded in 1710 the building was rebuilt and expanded several times but by the end of the 19th century, it was dated, crowded and small.

While the decision had been reached in 1887, finding the exact location was a slowed ordeal. Three areas were considered: the area of Déli Pályaudvar, the southern railway station; the vicinity of Városmajor, near Retek Street; and Kútvölgy in the Buda Hills. When this last location was chosen, the city had a hard time acquiring the land, and then planning was delayed, as debates around the size and location of the building unfolded. Even the price of lightning rods was discussed in detail. The final tender was eventually held in 1895. József Kauser completed the plans for the hospital.

Dr Endre Ludvig, director of the old and new Saint John's Hospital in the 27 March 1898 issue of Ország Világ

In May 1895 the City Council decided that once construction of the new hospital was completed, the old building would be converted into an almshouse. One hundred twenty-five years ago, construction began. Építő Ipar published a brief report on this on 2 October 1895: 

"The capital has begun construction of a new hospital in Buda costing hundreds of thousands of Forints. The hospital will lie alongside the road leading to Zugliget, near the cogwheel railway. Foundation work is already underway, and an enormous amount of dirt has been removed from the hillside to make it suitable for construction. The new institution will be in an excellent location and be one o the finest public buildings in Buda.

However, a few issues did arise during the summer. Budapest had two "owners". one was the City Council, the elected local government, and the other a government agency created to coordinate its larger infrastructure projects in 1870, the Public Works Committee of Budapest. The two branches of government often worked according to differing plans. The construction was stopped for a time one summer when it transpired that the Public Works Committee planned to build a public road through the land on which the new hospital was built. The Committee eventually stepped back from the plan at the requested of the city council.

A picture of the new hospital in the 7 August 1989 issue of Vasárnapi Újság

The entrance of Saint John's Hospital today (Photo:

The project was eventually started in the autumn of 1895. The hospital was opened on 3 August 1898, with 420 beds, instead of the originally planned 300. The complete costs reached 1 312 412 Forints. Five departments were opened, including surgery, general, paediatrics, dermatology and venereology, and ophthalmology. Parent and gynaecological care, infectious paediatrics and mixed sub-departments operated alongside these. The hospital was staffed with the team from the old Saint John's Hospital and can be considered the successor of the institution founded in 1710.

Cover photo: Saint John's Hospital as seen from the cogwheel railway in 1905 (Photo: Fortepan/No.: 115781)

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