Mexico: A Longtime Leader in Medicine (380 words)

I noticed recently that a hospital in Montreal, Canada is claiming to be the first hospital built in North America. I beg to differ. I suspect that they—like so many people—forget that Mexico is also in North America. The Canadian contender is a latecomer, claiming to have been built in 1645.

The first hospital in North America was undoubtedly built in Mexico City, and most agree that it was Hospital de la Purísima Concepción, later renamed Hospital de Jesús Nazareno and frequently referred to as simply Hospital de Jesús, (although there are two other hospitals that were built around the same time in Mexico). It is still standing and in operation today as it has been since 1524—more than a century before that Canadian upstart and nearly a century before the Pilgrims arrived aboard the Mayflower in 1620. The picture at the head of this article shows one of its interior courtyards.

The first hospital was ordered built and funded by Hernán Cortés, in gratitude (as he declared in his will) “for the graces and mercies God had bestowed on him in permitting him to discover and conquer New Spain and in expiation or satisfaction for any sins he had committed, especially those that he had forgotten, or any burden there might be on his conscience for which he could not make special atonement.”

Mexico has always been a place of medical firsts. For example, the first medical book printed in the New World was printed in 1570 in Mexico City on presses that had just arrived in New Spain thirty years earlier. Entitled Opera Medicinalia, by Francisco Bravo and published by Pedro Ocharte, there is only one known copy. It is safely housed in La Biblioteca José María Lafragua at the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla in Mexico and has been digitized by the Primeros Libros project where all can view it online. Its title page is shown here on the right.

While I find this part of Mexico’s history fascinating, it’s important to remember that the history of medical practice in Mexico extends much further back than the arrival of Cortés. Not only was the practice of medicine highly evolved before the arrival of Europeans, indigenous Mexicans published medical “books” (codices) before the invention of the printing press.

Perhaps I’ll write about that in the future.