I had the opportunity to tour the Narrenturm (Fools’ Tower) on the grounds of the old general hospital this week. Originally constructed to house Vienna’s poor, it was officially founded as continental Europe’s first mental institution in 1784 and is now an impressive anatomical-pathological museum (but not one for the faint of heart).
The campus of the old general hospital is now home to the University of Vienna, including the medical school, and our tour guide was an enthusiastic 4th year medical student named Ali. Beyond this point photographs were prohibited (out of respect for the privacy of the pathological specimens). The photos I’ve included are from the official Vienna government sites. (Thank you, Vienna.)
The tower has five levels with 28 cells each. Patients were housed according to their level of “insanity,” with the most unbalanced and violent patients at the top.
In its day the institution was one of the most modern, though pretty difficult to appreciate when standing in the corridors today. The yellow doors lead to the patient cells; now they are individual galleries devoted to the over 4.000 specimens in the collection. If you can imagine a disease or deformity, there’s a good chance you’ll find it preserved in these halls.
A view inside one of the cells. In the beginning just two or three patients shared a room, chained to the walls and with only straw mats for beds, though they were given a diet of meat and wine and allowed into the garden for exercise. This was state-of-the-art at the time.
On the day of my visit the skies were a little gray and the leaves were rustling just enough to lend a creepy vibe to the tour. Or was that the rattle of bones I heard?