I’d first become interested in the Hopital Bicêtre establishment after discovering that it was paired in infamy with the Pitié Salpetrière. In the 18th century, male patients (perhaps we should say the mentally ill) from Bicêtre were forcibly married to female patients from the Salpetrière and sent out to populate French colonies in the Americas.
Although classed as hospitals, these early institutions were closer to prisons, with their primary role being to keep beggars and ‘undesirables’ off the streets of Paris. But they also played several other curious roles.
On April 17, 1792, a herd of sheep were decapitated by a curious new machine that had been set up at the Bicêtre hospital. Delighted with the success of this initial test, the gathered dignitaries pressed on with further experiments. The corpses of three vagabonds were wheeled in, then also quickly relieved of their heads.
This was the very first test of a new execution machine, the guillotine, that would soon become infamous in France and around the world.
Looking around today’s institution, it’s strange to imagine that this was once a place more concerned with killing than healing. This establishment though has always had a rather dark history. The Bicêtre was originally a monastery then a number of differentchateaux, all of which were pillaged and destroyed in various wars. It eventually became a hospital under Louis XIV in the middle of the 17th century.
Several buildings on the site date from this period, notably a magnificent ‘grand puits’ well dug by the architect Germain Boffrand in 1733. Even here though, progress was coupled with cruelty. Although water was originally drawn from the well by 12 horses, the job was quickly given to 72 prisonners at the ‘hospital’, then same number of its ‘patients’. Eventually this task was thankfully taken over by three pumps.