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History hospital: Charité

INTERVIEW! A new TV series on ARD turns the spotlight on Berlin’s Charité hospital. Its scriptwriter tells us about the unique allure of the 307-year-old medical institution. It premieres Mar 21, but you can preview the first two episodes online.

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A new TV series on ARD turns the spotlight on Berlin’s Charité hospital. Its scriptwriter tells us about the unique allure of the 307-year-old medical institution.

It’s the largest and oldest hospital in Germany, with four campuses taking up 540,000sqm of land in Berlin. It’s treated patients for over three centuries as well as serving as a research facility for the country’s best and brightest doctors, including eight Nobel Prize winners.

Glancing at the recently renovated, 23-storey Bettenhaus, it’s hard to believe that Charité was originally conceived as an out-of-town “plague house” as the epidemic raged in eastern Prussia, before being turned into a proper clinic and named after the French word for charity by Friedrich Wilhelm I. But it wasn’t until the late 1800s that Charité rose to become the foremost German medical school thanks to a great number of breakthroughs, most importantly in bacteriology.

Airing March 21 (the first two episodes are available for preview online), Sönke Wortmann’s new six-part TV series takes us back to this period of scientific discovery at the dawn of German nationhood. Featuring future Nobel Laureates Robert Koch and Emil v. Behring, a critical look at the era’s medical practices and a hefty helping of tuberculosis, it adds a historical dimension to the immensely popular hospital soap genre. We spoke to scriptwriter and medical historian Sabine Thor-Wiedemann about the hospital’s history and legacy.

What made Charité so fascinating to you?

It’s a hospital with history. For one thing, there aren’t many hospitals in the world that have been around for more than 300 years. Furthermore, its role in Berlin’s – and Germany’s – history is important. Originally, Charité was located on the city margins. It was designated to become a quarantine house for the plague-infected, but when the plague never actually reached Berlin, the city grew around it. During WWII, it was close to Hitler’s Reichskanzlei and the Führerbunker, so the hospital was one of the last bastions the Nazis defended against the Russian onslaught. Then, during GDR times, the border ran right across the compound. So Charité was really at the focal point of history! Of course, it also brought forward a great many important doctors, although that scientific tradition came to a crashing halt when Jews had to flee from Germany in the 1930s. In some departments of the Charité clinic, 80 percent of the doctors were Jews! That’s when it lost its world-class position – and it never fully recovered from that.

How did you get the idea to make this particular series?

In the late 19th century, three future Nobel Prize winners were competing against each other in one hospital.

The scriptwriter Dorothee Schön had the idea in 2008, with the 300th anniversary of Charité in mind. Originally, we wanted to make a 10-part docu-fiction exploring the whole history of the hospital. But it quickly became clear that portraying so many different eras, with different scenery and different props, wasn’t really doable. So we chose to focus on the late 19th century, when three future Nobel Prize winners were competing against each other in one hospital: Emil von Behring, Robert Koch and Paul Ehrlich. Charité was the place where these young doctors first encountered Rudolf Virchow, the founder of modern pathology, by then a very senior doctor and an icon of medical history in his own right. So we’re depicting a place and a time when the modern history of medicine was being written.

Even in 1910, Charité boasted state-the-art facilities. © rbb / Institute for the History of Medicine and Ethics in Medicine - Charité

So Charité is a symbol for the great scientific discoveries and social changes that occurred in Germany at that time?

Not just in Germany, but internationally. Charité was recognised by the Kaiser as a means to compete with France and England’s colonial empires in terms of prestige. When Kaiser Wilhelm II was crowned in 1888 at only 29 years old, he was suffering from an inferiority complex on two levels – he felt Germany’s inferiority on a global level, and on a more personal level he was deeply troubled by his crippled arm. I think those combined factors led him to undertake a number of endeavours to prove the country’s greatness. One of them was promoting the kind of cutting-edge research that was going on at the Charité and making sure that it became known in Europe. But then, despite all this, his support never really extended to much more than a benevolent slap on the back. Financially, Charité was always in a precarious position. It was mostly funded by health insurance, which already existed then, and private patients.

Did you have a lot of archive material to draw from?

Surprisingly, all the administrative files from these 300 years of medical history still exist. So every admission and every single patient is documented, and everything is handwritten, of course. Then there are the medical journals, like the Deutsche Medizinische Wochenschrift, which still exists today. A hundred years ago, German was the language of science. We spent a lot of time sifting through the historical issues of those journals. And we read a lot of biographies…

Were there any surprises?

It was a big surprise finding out about Behring’s addiction to opium. Both this and his very pronounced mental illness were hardly known or hardly remarked upon in biographies and historical accounts. I was also really struck by how few rights the patients had back then. There was no sense of the patients as individuals, and they were at the doctors’ disposal. They were neither told about their diagnosis, nor were they asked if they agreed on the treatment. And another main difference between then and now, something that continues to amaze me, is how dedicated doctors were to their work back then, their drive to cure diseases. Being a doctor was not at all understood as just a job, with family time and holidays and all. These were people with a fanatical dedication and explorer personalities, with a mission. And that’s quite different from many doctors today.

Walking around the Charité campus now, can you see anything left of that time?

During the war, almost two-thirds of Charité was destroyed. Some of the red brick buildings built around the turn of the century are still left, but nothing remains from the period we’re talking about in the series. That’s why we filmed in Prague.

The six-part German-language series Charité will air on ARD from March 21. For an overview of the hospital’s eventful past, head to Charité’s Medicinal History Museum, Charitéplatz 1, Mitte, www.bmm-charite.de


Built in the 1980s, the hospital’s Bettenhaus reopened after three years of renovations at the end of 2016.

Charité: the facts

Charité was founded in 1710 and is one of the world’s oldest operating hospitals. It employs a total of 13,200 medical workers, including nearly 3800 doctors and over 200 professors. With 3000 beds, it’s the largest hospital in Germany and regularly tops the Focus Klinikliste, Germany’s primary hospital ratings. In 2003, Charité merged with the medical schools at Humboldt and the Free University; it currently boasts about 7000 students. Its recently renovated trademark 86m high dormitory is one of the largest single hospital buildings in the world. With a yearly budget of €1.6 billion, Charité is involved in cutting-edge neuroscience, cardiovascular and allergy research, as well as a pioneering paedophilia programme, on top of the 6200 operations performed and 5000 babies born there each year.