Academic journal article The Historian

The Royal Indian Hospital of Mexico City, 1553-1680

Academic journal article The Historian

The Royal Indian Hospital of Mexico City, 1553-1680

Article excerpt

The Spanish invasion of Mexico in 1519 began a new age for the Americas and Europe. While many scholars have concentrated their research upon the military conquest, disease - the hidden ally of the Spaniards - has received less scrutiny and emphasis. In fact, an epidemic had already made its way to the future Mexico City by the time the Aztecs accepted their military defeat in 1521; and so began the greatest demographic decline in Mexican history.(1)

The epidemics that occurred throughout the sixteenth century, especially during 1545-46 and 1576-79, consumed great numbers of the Nahua Indians who inhabited the Valley of Mexico. There exists no consensus as to the precise count of the Mexican Indian population on the eve of the Spanish Conquest. Nevertheless there is general agreement that the populace declined rapidly thereafter, reaching a low of perhaps 750,000 by 1622. Then the Indian population began to rebound so that by 1650 it stood at 1.5 million. Disease became a daily occurrence, especially in Mexico City, after the arrival of the Europeans. For example, in 1545 a Franciscan noted in the wake of a catastrophic epidemic in which more than one million died that, "corpses covered the streets and there were not enough hands to bury the dead." Against this backdrop, officials in Spain and in colonial Mexico began to press for the construction of hospitals. Their motivations were selfish as well as humanitarian since they depended on the tributes, taxes, and labor provided by the Nahuas.(2)

Soon after the beginning of Spanish rule and the onslaught of epidemics, the Roman Catholic Church became the primary institution to found and build hospitals within the viceregal capital. Such religious orders as the Franciscans, Augustinians, and Benedictines were noted for the medical care and treatment that they rendered to the Nahua population. In the first century after the Spanish Conquest, these religious groups, as well as others, established over 120 hospitals located throughout the Mexican viceroyalty. Initially most of these medical institutions offered medical care to the Spanish populace only. However, the Indians of colonial New Spain eventually were afforded medical services.(3)

The Royal Indian Hospital of Mexico City influenced colonial Mexico as religious leaders and government officials became concerned with the rapid population decline of the Mexican Indians. According to Spanish records, the Royal Indian Hospital of Mexico City was ordered established in 1553. Charles V apparently had received a number of letters during 1552 and 1553 from Pedro de Gante and other ecclesiastical officials regarding the impact of the epidemics in central Mexico after the Spanish Conquest. Gante had made special note of their influence upon the Nahuas, pointing out the lack of any special medical institutions to deal with their ailments. As a consequence of the efforts of Gante and others, Charles V finally authorized the founding of the hospital.(4)

Unlike those under the control and administration of the church, the Royal Indian Hospital of Mexico City was under the direction and supervision of the crown's colonial officialdom. As a non-religious medical institution it represented a unique undertaking by the Spanish crown to attempt to deal with the consequences of the European conquest of Mexico. From the outset, the chief administrator responsible for the hospital's operations was chosen from the judges of the Real Audiencia (the high court) and given the august title of oidor en turno-juez de hospitales (supervising judge, a position held in rotation).(5)

Construction of the hospital began in 1554 with a portion of its funding coming from the coffers of the new Spanish monarch, Philip II. During the year, the viceroy wrote Philip II to urge him to continue funding the Indian Hospital. Philip responded by extending a subsidy to the hospital as had his father. The site selected for the hospital was near the Convent of San Francisco and the College of San Juan de Letran near the Plaza Mayor of Mexico City. …

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