Big cities need to be able to provide adequate medical care for large numbers of residents – this was no different back in the day when East Berlin was the capital of the German Democratic Republic. The foundations for the medical care of the city’s population were laid 150 years ago in Friedrichshain where Berlin’s first municipal hospital was built. Read on to find out more about the hospital’s turbulent history and its role at the forefront of public healthcare provision in East Germany.
Construction and Grand Opening of the Klinikum im Friedrichshain
The decision to start building a municipal hospital was made in the Berlin Stadtverordnetenversammlung (city council assembly) on 28 December 1867. A site in Volkspark Friedrichshain was earmarked for construction. Martin Gropius and Heino Schmieden, the two architects commissioned by the city, designed the hospital as an ensemble of 12 pavillons, a design favoured at the time because of a common belief that disease was spread by unclean air.
Hospital Friedrichshain Groundplan; Source: wikimedia
Construction started on 17 October 1868 and the 620-bed facility was completed in 1874 as planned and able to admit its first patients on the day of its grand opening on 8 October.
Always at the Forefront of Technological Innovation
In the period following the hospital’s completion, medical technology advanced rapidly, with new devices, systems and facilities complementing the existing hospital.
These innovations included a newly founded nurses’ college as well as the addition of a new pavillon to accommodate an operating theatre. The discovery of X-ray in 1895 constituted a milestone in the evolution of medical technology. Two years later, the Klinikum im Friedrichshain acquired its first X-ray machine.
During the following decades, the hospital remained at the forefront of state-of-the-art medical technology and innovation and became one of Berlin’s most important medical facilities.
A Dark Era for the Klinikum Friedrichshain
During the first half of the 20th century, two world wars and the Great Depression tested the limits of public healthcare provision. After public spending cuts had already put a strain on the hospital’s staffing levels, even more employees were let go under the Nazis’ inhumane ‘Race Laws’.
Between 1942 and the end of the war in May 1945, large parts of the hospital were destroyed during Allied air raids.
Reconstruction and Modernisation in East Germany
The hospital’s post-war reconstruction was accompanied by large-scale restructuring. Now part of the newly founded socialist regime’s public healthcare system, the hospital was divided into 12 specialist departments. By the time the ward block was completed in 1954, the original facility’s pavillon architecture had been completely replaced by larger, centralised buildings.
Hospital Friedrichshain Poliklinikum 1967; Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-F0426-0203-001 / CC-BY-SA 3.0; wikimedia
Staff Shortages and the Building of the Wall
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, increasing numbers of East German residents fled to the west, including many healthcare professionals employed at the Klinikum im Friedrichshain. The ‘brain drain’ of medical professionals continued even after the Wall went up in August 1961.
However, so did advances in medical technology, including the first successful kidney transplant in East Germany, which was carried out in the Klinikum im Friedrichshain in 1967. Two years later, the hospital’s facilities were extended to encompass the GDR’s first and only kidney transplant centre.
In an attempt to combat further severe staff shortages during the 1970s, the government brought in medical professionals from Vietnam to work in East German hospitals, including the Klinikum im Friedrichshain.
Growth, New Facilities and German Reunification
The hospital continued to grow and extend its services and facilities during the next few years, adding a new paediatric wing, extra beds to accommodate more patients and a state-of-the-art department of nuclear medicine.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, some of the Klinikum’s departments were closed and the number of beds reduced from almost 1,100 to 800.
Proposals for the hospital’s closure were averted thanks to the determination of its management and staff. Instead, the Klinikum was nominated as a model facility and tasked to develop more efficient structures and processes.
Hospital Friedrichshain Gate; Source: By Maria Krüger (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
After extensive restructuring enabled the Klinikum to manage the transition into the new millennium, it has now been a trusted healthcare provider for residents of Berlin, and Friedrichshain in particular, for 144 years.
Due to its central location only half a mile from Strausberger Platz and the Central Berlin development , the Klinikum im Friedrichshain remains a first port of call for many residents from Mitte, Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg.