One of my favorite parts of Montpellier is most definitely the neighborhood around the Faculty of Medicine. Not only because of the long and important history of the university and its magnificent building, but also because of the fact that it is attached to the cathedral Saint Pierre. What an unusual marriage between the two institutions that are quite different in its core! They are both based in the city center, surrounded by narrow streets from the Middle Ages. Additionally, this beautiful setting is embellished by the botanical garden that is right across the street. The entrance is free of charge and the garden has the tradition almost as long as the university itself.
Faculty of medicine – the oldest university in the world
Founded in 1220, the oldest university of medicine in the world celebrated last year its 800 years of existence. Can you image! 8 centuries! Because of the pandemic, a lot of events celebrating the history of this institution were postponed for this year.
I, personally, am celebrating it each time I pass by this wonderful building and each time I see the light shining on the cupolas of the cathedral. When you pass by, you cannot but stop and admire the history that is well written in the white stones that embellish the facade. For many, these two building are inseparable and sight-seeing of the two is inevitably combined. When you are inside of the university of Medicine, you are in the building’s patio that shines all the light on one side of the cathedral. And, when you are looking at the main entrance of the cathedral, you cannot but see the building that is proudly standing like a cathedral’s right hand.
Montpellier, an important city on the crossroad
Montpellier was founded towards in 985. What was going to become the city of Montpellier was ideally situated at the crossroads of land (Roman via domitia, the road to Santiago de Compostela) and sea (port of Lattes, the most important port at the time between Genoa, Pisa and Barcelona).
Guilhem had this magnificent business idea, to build the whole city where travelers could rest. Many travelers, merchants, doctors, and scholars passed through Montpellier on their way to the Iberian and Italian peninsulas. On their way they spread and shared the influences of the Arab-Andalusian and Byzantine-Eastern worlds.
Medical help in Montpellier
Over the time, it became evident that pilgrims and travelers would sometimes reach Montpellier very sick and needed medical assistance. A large medical community was established in Montpellier already in the XI century. Montpellier was one of the few cities in medieval Europe at the time that had medical assistance. Another very important city for medicine was for Salerno in Italy where medical teaching had already developed during the same century.
Not only that the city was advanced with the ideas in its organization, but also Guilhem VIII decreed the freedom to teach medicine. Consequentially, this led to an increase of the city’s population and the people that would consider Montpellier as the stop on their travel. This also meant the dissemination of medical knowledge, but in a completely unregulated manner. Finally, in 1220, the teaching of medicine was officially organized and the faculty could ensure more reliable transmission of its valuable knowledge.
Medical practice was based on ancient Greek writings preserved by the Arabs. They were translated and enriched by Arab-Persian science, which reached Europe thanks to the civilization of Al-Andalus present in the Iberian Peninsula and by Latin and Sicilian culture (with, for example, Constantine the African, a monk from Tunisia who translated Arabic).
The faculty of medicine in Montpellier was characteristic for another thing! It did not discriminate anyone and everyone was welcome here! The lord of Montpellier Guilhem VIII granted in to “any man, whoever he was and wherever he was from” the right to “direct a school of medicine in Montpellier”. In the entrance hall of the historical building of the faculty, you can read that one third of the first illustrious doctors of Montpellier were of Jewish descendant.
Today, more than one thousand years later, Montpellier is still a place of passage. Being a university city and with almost industries and big companies, Montpellier is a place where people like to come… And very often leave. But one is sure! Faculty of Medicine still attracts a lot of students and the competition is tough!
Agnes McLaren was born in 1837 in Edinburgh, Scotland. The first female doctor in Montpellier grew up in a family where social justice was important. Thanks to her mother-in-law Priscilla, McLaren became involved in the fight for women’s liberation and was elected secretary of the Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage.
Between 1879 and 1881 Agnes McLaren returned to her country of birth. Unfortunately, the mentality and the persistent opposition of the doctors pushed her to come and live in France and to settle in Cannes where she opened her own practice. This allowed her to treat the poorest patients thanks to the fees she charged to her rich clients.
In 1905, Agnes McLaren heard about a custom in India called the Purdha, a tradition that prevented women from being seen by men other than those in the family. She joined a Catholic mission to see what was going on there and founded the Saint Catherine Hospital in Rawalpindi. McLaren trained local nuns to treat the patients, however the law forbade religious women to practice gynecology. She fought to have this restriction lifted and met the Austrian Anna Maria Dengel who continued her fight and created the Medical Mission Sisters, a Catholic community of sisters dedicated to the care of women and children around the world.
Agnes died on April 17, 1913 at the age of 75 from a lung disease. She will rest in peace in Antibes, and her life story will continue to be told. In her memory, the Scottish Caroline Debladis, who founded an association in her name, gives an award every two years for a thesis on women’s or children’s health.
City of Montpellier has a lot to offer to everyone that decides to visit it. Its long and great cultural and historical heritage makes everyone fall in love with it very easily. Montpellier does not deceive anyone that gives it a chance and leaves you wanting more.