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Exhibition – Herbs, health and hospitals of Gozo past

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Herbs, health and hospitals of Gozo pastIt is possible to get a glance of almost five hundred years of medical practice in Gozo at the exhibition Herbs, health, and hospitals of Gozo past being held at the National Archives Gozo Section.

Herbs, health, and hospitals are very much related. Until the late nineteenth century, herbs were not merely plants with flavours that helped to make food interesting, but a gift from God to be employed in the treatment and prevention of illness. This was especially so in isolated places such as the island of Gozo.

The most prized medicinal herb was the Gherq Sinjur, erroneously known in English as the Gozo fungus. Believed to be endemic to Hagret il-General at the mouth of Dwejra Bay, it was sought due to its astringent and haemostatic properties and considered the best cure for haemorrhages and diseases of the blood. The dried stalks were pulverised and mixed with wine or water and taken as a potion. However the number of plant species that are known or believed to possess medicinal properties is very large; no fewer than three hundred are listed in a herbal of Malta and Gozo.

The island’s best known herbalist was Frenc tal-Gharb (1892-1967); thousands sought his herbal potions during his life. It was only in the early years of the twentieth century when chemists began to make medicinal compounds that new kinds of drugs became available and the old herbal remedies were abandoned.

The health of the Gozitans was of prime concern for the Universitas, the regional government of Gozo in late medieval and early modern times. On 21 November 1580, it authorized Alfio dello Re, one of the jurats, to travel to Malta and try to convince a certain Doctor Xerri to take up residence in Gozo. He was also directed to negotiate an acceptable salary. The Universitas was ready to shoulder part of his salary.

It is possible that for long periods there was no doctor on the island. By the passage of years, the Universitas employed an aromatario or druggist, a chirurgo or surgeon, and a fisico or doctor on a regular basis. When the British took over in 1800, they furthered the health services as it was in their interest that the island remained free of contagious disease. In 1897, they evacuated the whole island of Comino to quarantine troops returning from India where there was a plague outbreak. The small Comino population were temporarily transferred to Gozo and given a small daily allowance.

By comparison to other isolated places, the island of Gozo had a relatively good medical service. This made a significant leap forward with the foundation of the first hospital, the Saint Julian Hospital, on the 22nd of February 1454. The last in an impressive list of hospitals is the modern mental hospital at Tal-Ibrag inaugurated on the 17th of December 1994.

This exhibition highlights these three related aspects of the history of Gozo in three sections. Through a selection of documents, etchings, plans, and historic photos held by the National Archives, the visitor is regaled with a journey through the medical vicissitudes of Gozo past.

This year the exhibition has a special significance. It is being held on the 20th anniversary of the setting-up of the National Archives Gozo section, officially inaugurated onthe 24th of November 1989. The exhibition runs from the 1st of October, to the 17th of October 2009, at the National Archives, Triq Vajringa, Rabat-Gozo. It is open from Monday to Saturday from 8.00am to 1.00pm. An exhibition catalogue compiled by Dr Joseph Bezzina and a souvenir postcard issued for the occasion are available for sale at a nominal price. Entrance is free. The exhibition is sponsored by HSBC – the world’s local bank.

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