by Clive Irving
Health care was a big concern in 12th century London. There wasn't any. That is, until a humble citizen called Rahere went to Rome on a pilgrimage. There he fell sick with malaria. Roman health care, it turned out, was so good that he recovered. And so it came to pass that to thank God for his recovery, Rahere returned to London and founded a hospital, in 1123, on a site on the edge of the city called Smithfield. The Roman hospital had been dedicated to the apostle St. Bartholomew, and that was the name Rahere gave to his London hospital.
Today it is a key player in Britain's National Health Service. A huge new wing dedicated to cancer treatment is just being completed. Smithfield itself is a storied location, still the home of London's central meat market (and, allegedly, the source of the phrase a bull in a china shop, when an animal fleeing its fate ran amok through nearby high-end stores). The core of the hospital remains four 18th century wings enclosing a piazza. And it was on the edge of the piazza that I found what is one of London's smallest (and least-known) museums devoted to the hospital's history, beginning with Rahere, whose tomb is in an adjacent church.