When the iron gates were padlocked at the entrance of the San Juan de Dios hospital in 2001, it marked the end of an era and centuries for a medical institution founded during the reign of King Philip V of Spain (1683-1746).
As one of the first hospitals in the New World, it witnessed the injuries inflicted on soldiers by the conquest of the Andes, the first bouts of tropical disease among the inhabitants of SantaFe de Bogotá as well as the dawn and hope of a new Republic.
San Juan de Dios was the city’s most visited hospital, as it provided public health and services to some of the most destitute in a city whose numbers were growing fast with the arrival of farmers and their families from the countryside. The proximity of the institution to some of Bogotá’s most dangerous streets, frequented by drug peddlers, thieves and prostitutes guaranteed a steady flow of victims of violent crime. On Saturday nights, when workers received their “quincena” – or bimonthly pay – San Juan de Dios went from being a scientific research center to war hospital.
In 2001, the Colombian government passed a controversial law – the Ley 100 – which marked the beginning of the end for several public hospitals. More than two million medical files in San Juan de Dios of patients from all walks of life and from all corners of Colombia were packed into boxes and sold as scrap. The history of medicine in Colombia gone to recyclers. Medical cabinets were pillaged at night by intruders and the incubators in the large maternity ward used by vagrants as makeshift beds for their children.
Photographer Nicolas Van Hemelryck became aware of this story during the last year of the hospital and got access to the hospital around the same time the last client stepped out into the Cra Decima, and the government issued the order for San Juan’s closure.
With its grass courtyards, stone walkways, and open patios, the hospital got new residents, many of them homeless who instead of enduring city shelters took over the old offices of the medical staff. Some former staff who now wait out the days, hoping the government will reverse the decree and open the hospital again so they can collect their pay cheques.
Although declared Cultural Patrimony of the city, the lack of political will has turned it into a ruin which covers two large city blocks. Medical students from the Universidad Nacional have led protests during the last several years to demand some of the buildings reopen as they needed space to continue their studies.
Nicolas’ photographs are a testament to the golden age of medicine in Colombia and the indifference of many when it came to maintaining the social welfare. While many modern and private hospitals operate across the metopolis, the San Juan de Dios remains a name associated with forming some of the best doctors in the country, many of whom went on to work and teach overseas.
During the 1990s, research for a cure to malaria was conducted by doctor Manuel Elkin Patarroyo in a red-brick building of the hospital and if one could examine the birth records of many Bogotanos, ten of thousands began their lives in the musty dorms of the San Juan de Dios.
Colombian photographer Nicolas van Hemelryck won the Colombo Swiss Award for Photography for documenting the decay of the San Juan de Dios Hospital.