Following the premature death of his beloved first wife, Anna Fitz Gerald, on December 11, 1883, Giovanni Meyer, a fabulously wealthy banker set about fulfilling her last wish: that Florence should have ‘a hospital, which could house a certain number of sick children, especially those with congenital or acquired deformities.’
At the time, paediatrics, or the specialised medical care of infants, children and adolescents, was in its own infancy, and children were treated along with adults in ordinary hospital wards. Italy lagged behind other European countries, in which specialised children’s hospitals were being built, among them the Hopital des enfants malades, established in Paris in 1802, and Great Ormond Street in London in 1861, even if these institutions focused on curing infectious diseases whilst infant mortality rates remained high. Tentative steps had been taken at the Santa Maria Nuova hospital, where, in 1881, a young doctor, Germano Guidi, started a free paediatric dispensary for poor children under 10 years old, and where, in 1883, a gynaecological and paediatrics ward opened. However, it was not until 1884 that members of the city’s most illustrious families and philanthropists from the foreign community formed a committee to establish a children’s hospital, one of the first of its kind in Italy.
Seeking financial backers, the committee contacted Giovanni Meyer. Born in Petrograd (today’s St. Petersburg) on March 27, 1841, into a rich, land-owning family of Prussian origin, Meyer, a founder of the Banca Commerciale Italiana, had settled in Florence for business reasons. He agreed to contribute substantially to the hospital’s construction on the condition that it be named after his dear, departed wife.
Initially, it was to be built on land donated by Count Serristori, another committee member, while Meyer would pay for the construction of the complex. Soon a clash developed between those who supported Meyer and others who wanted the hospital named after the very Florentine Serristori. Putting a swift end to the controversy, Meyer decided to take on the entire project: he would build the hospital on more suitable land, property that he had purchased in what is today via Luca Giordano, then in the periphery of the city.
Architect Giacomo Roster designed the hospital, with medical input from Giuseppe Corradi, professor of clinical surgery at the Santa Maria Nuova hospital. Work at the site took four years and, when completed, consisted of a central, two-story building with two side pavilions, one for boys and one for girls, linked to the main building by glass corridors. The main building contained an operating theatre, administrative offices, doctors’ rooms and an isolation ward for children with diphtheria, whilst each of the pavilions had one large and one small ward with beds for 48 children, as well as two small isolation rooms.
Meyer donated what became known as the spedalino or ‘little hospital’ to the City of Florence in February 1887. He stipulated that it retain in perpetuity the name of his wife, that it not be used for anything other than a children’s hospital and that hygiene and cleanliness be scrupulously observed. However, due to bureaucratic hold-ups, the Meyer paediatric hospital was not officially opened until February 19, 1891. Three days later, the first five children previously hospitalised at Santa Maria Nuova, now responsible for the daily running of the new hospital, were transferred there. In the meantime, Meyer had been granted Italian citizenship, given the title of Marquis of Montagliari and made an honorary citizen of Florence for his philanthropy.
The endowments made to the ‘little hospital’ by this austere but clear-sighted, pragmatic man were not to end there. By the late 1890s, it was clear that the children’s hospital needed to expand to cater for an increasing number of young patients. This was made even more necessary because the paediatric clinic of the university, previously housed in the insalubrious wards of the maternity hospice, and the university’s paediatric surgery department were also to be moved there. Once again, Meyer made a significant monetary bequest on the conditions that it should be ‘without the pomp of formality as charity given to poor sick children by an anonymous benefactor’ and that the work be finished rapidly. The two new measles and diphtheria isolation wards constructed on land acquired next to the existing complex took three years to complete and were officially inaugurated in 1901.
Indeed, expanding and improving the hospital proved to be a lifetime commitment. After Meyer died in Signa on September 24, 1916, this commitment was continued by his aristocratic English-born second wife, Ernestina Fuller, and daughter, Palma, one of his four offspring.
Today, the Meyer hospital is an international centre of excellence for child health. In 2007, it closed the doors of its historic site in town to open those of a modern, state-of-the-art structure near the central hospital at Careggi.
The ‘munificent benefactor,’ Giovanni Meyer, is buried at the Porte Sante cemetery, where, in June 2008, the City of Florence honoured him by erecting a commemorative stone.
My thanks go to Dr. Esther Diana of the Centro di Documentazione per la Storia dell’Assistenza e della Sanità in Florence (www.cdocsanita.it) and to Dr. Melania Minnelli of the Fondazione Meyer (http://tinyurl.com/d5wcvhh), who kindly assisted me with some of the research for this article.