Malta Diary The Royal Naval Bighi Hospital – one of the best in Europe during its era Now an interactive Esplora science and technology museum and a major attraction
Villa Bighi is one of the most iconic buildings on the inner rim of the majestic Valletta Grand Harbour. The central original villa was intended as a summer residence built by the priest Fra Giovanni Bichi who was a Member of the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem in 1675 in a mainly then uninhabited area. Little was he to know at the time the role that his originally modest villa was to assume in much later years.
In 1813 the building was hurriedly transformed into an isolation hospital as a great plague terrified Malta – more devastating than today’s COVID. The changes were carried out under doctors Luigi Pisani and Gio Batta Saydon. Aligned to this period was the terrifying episode of the nearby Kalkara Cemetery.
A number of people were found to be infected by the plague and were hurriedly buried alive in the cemetery and for many years later the whole area was said to be haunted with people reporting hearing screams and wails of anguish during the night. Some tragic incidents in recent years continued to maintain the aura the whole area is damned.
Villa Bighi sits proudly on the edge of the peninsula of the southern coastal village of Kalkara with breath-taking views of the natural Grand Harbour of Valletta as well as the imposing forts of St Angelo and St Elmo and is one of the finest examples of 19th Century neo-classical architecture on the Islands.
When the plague subsided the building was formally handed over to the British forces in 1822 and a decision was taken to use the building as a hospital with new surgical wards being added to deal with the spread of infective diseases at the beginning of the 20th Century.
The combined efforts of Sir George Whitmore, Salvatore and Gaetano Xerri resulted in new and innovative and stunning structures and became known as the Royal Naval Hospital Bighi. The design of the building was crucial in halting the spread of disease by focusing on aspects such as the sea air circulation and incorporating rounded edges on the walls so that dirt and dust could not fester. In fact, of all the patients that were too sick for their ships doctors, RNH Bighi had only an incredible 4% mortality rate.
It had been planned that beds would have plenty of air circulation for patients and with large verandahs and the medical care provided was rated to be among the best.
The hospital had an important role in three wars treating the wounded in the Crimean War of 1854 and later the two World Wars. Unfortunately the hospital suffered considerably during World War II and much of it did not survive the aerial bombardments.
Over the years several personalities were treated at the hospital. In 1863, the son of Queen Victoria, Prince Alfred, was treated there for a month and he placed on record the efficiency of the treatment he had received.
As my father Frank was in the British Services, although in the RAF and not the Royal Navy, we were entitled to treatment at the hospital, and in early 1959 this brought about a personal family experience.
My mother suffered a gum infection and her lower gum filled with pus. She was deemed to need an immediate and emergency operation. My father applied to Bighi and she was immediately taken there.
The operation was promptly carried out by a Naval dental surgeon who cut opn her gum and drained the pus and then inserted no less than 21 stitches. I remember visiting her there (I was 13) and barely recognised her because her face had swollen into a huge balloon. Eventually she recovered.
Later the surgeon informed my parents she had been millimetres away from death because the pus had pushed upward and had almost reached her brain, in which case it would have proved fatal.
In 1847 an anaestetic was administered for the first time at Bighi Hospital and even at the start of the 20th Century x-rays were used in surgical blocks on the other side.
A major innovation was the ‘cot lift’, the second electric-powered lift to be installed in Malta. This stretched down the outer facade of the whole building and was used to transport patients direct from boats to the wards.
Fifty years ago last week, on 17th September 1970, Villa Bighi was used as a hospital facility for the last time after 167 years of continuous service and was handed back to the Maltese Authorities.
For a while it served as a technical school and for various other functions but sadly fell into a state of dilapidation.
In 2010 a project was initiated by Malta’s government for the transformation of the West Wing, the Cot Lift, the Chaplin’s House and the Mental Ward into a National Interactive Science Centre, now known as ESPLORA under the wings of the Malta Council for Science and Technology and since its inception it has become a leading local attraction and one of the largest interactive science centres in Europe.
Nowadays Villa Bighi also functions as a stunning event venue for anyone wishing to enjoy its glorious charm, esteemed architecture and breath-taking views. It has been refurbished and repurposed and given a new lease of life as a top-notch event venue.
Now, to recognise and commemorate its position as a top leading hospital for over 150 years, a permanent exhibition has been mounted and includes information about the architecture, the personalities and the medical technology used at the hospital. This and the rest of the ESPLORA exhibits can be viewed through virtual means.
“Biscuits in the mouths of donkeys.”
A description of persons who do not appreciate what they have and thus what they have is wasted on them.