There is a spot amidst the city’s heart that measures 180.000 m2, has its own street map, its own transportation system and, as some say, its own governmental structures with councils, committees authorities. Within a stone’s throw of Hauptbahnhof, Friedrichstraße and the government district lies Campus Mitte of Berlin’s university hospital Charité. Forming a little universe, the somewhat isolated Charité has its own history and its own stories to tell. Since the faculty is my alma mater, I roamed the historical campus to see what I may find.
On paper, the hospital has a glorious history: So far, the Charité spawned eight Nobel Prize laureates. Countless internationally famed doctors worked here throughout its 300 yeas spanning history. The roads on the spacious campus in the district of Mitte bear names of some of the most famous physicians that ever lived: all of them worked here. The layers of dust are thick here: gold dust shimmering in the bright sun light.
But it all started when in 1710 the plague threatened Berlin and king Frederick I decided to build a special hospital outside of then city walls. The plague never hit Berlin and so it was converted into a sick bay, later a public hospital for the training of military doctors. It was Frederick I, too, who decided to name the facility “Charité”, charity.
More than a century later – the Charité had already developed into a university hospital – Rudolf Virchow established his famous cellular pathology, thus profoundly revolutionising medical practice worldwide, essentially paving the way for a modern, scientific medicine. It was at this time around 1850 and for many decades to come, that the Charité united the most talented and visionary doctors and researches known to the continent. What Oxford, Cambridge and MIT mean to science in general, was Charité for medical research. The campus was no less than a huge think-tank: Many new medical specialities developed (pathology, psychiatry, anaesthesia, infectiology, graft surgery), others, such as vast parts of surgery, were set on scientific, modern standards.
However, when Berlin’s fate changed, it also affected the Charité. Throughout the centuries, the university hospital reflected every major political and social change; the Third Reich was no exception. Race politics and eugenics formed a new professional consent and led to much suffering both for staff and patients. The role of Charité physicians from most medical fields in the performing of many of the Nazi’s atrocities is undisputed.
Soon, Berlin was divided. The Mitte campus fell into East German property, bordering the Berlin Wall to Moabit. The Charité was announced the leading hospital of the “capital of the GDR” and soon received a new building, which still dominates the skyline over Northern Mitte. The “Bettenhochhaus” (bed high rise) with its twenty-one floors and connected sections still rises high above the campus. After the Wall came down and when financial issues affected local politics, the Charité gradually merged with the former West-Berlin campi in Wedding and Steglitz.
Today, the Charité and its own facility management company employ 15.000 people who are engaged in primary care for more than a million patients annually, extensive and world-class research and the education of 7.000 students enrolled in fifteen courses.
Strolling around the Mitte campus, all this is still visible. Most of the 19th century buildings are still intact and administered. The roads bear the names of the famous physicians and researches who worked here and a multitude of monuments honours the feats accomplished there. The air is suffused with an academic spirit that, on a bright and sunny day, resembles the mood evoked by cliché movies set on American campuses. Picture every imagination of academic medicine you have and you will most certainly find it here. Behind the facades of these historical and modern buildings works a machinery that surprises in its extent and that I wished to have caught in pictures. As a matter of course I couldn’t disturb neither care, research nor education, though I can only wish to give an impression. Time-honoured places, especially the institutes for anatomy and pathology along with their vast specimen collections still bear a lot of both dignity and awe.
If you find some time, take my advise and visit the medical-historical museum located in the northwesternmost corner of the grounds. In any case, take an evening walk around the campus to capture the spirit of this isolated space amidst Berlin’s city centre.