Hospice Care History

Hospice refers to a place where those who are dying may receive all the support they need—not just physical support, but emotional spiritual support as well. The word “hospice” comes from the Latin word “hospitium,” meaning a place where guests could receive lodging and hospitality.

Most historians see origins of hospice care in the Middle Ages. During the 14th century, a series of plagues ravaged through the population of Europe. Before it was finished, these plagues took the lives of over 25 million people. There were so many dying and so much societal disruption that the sick and dying had nobody to help them. Most were left to die within their own homes.

Then, in the 17th century, a French priest named Vincent de Paul established a nursing order, giving it the name, The Sisters of Mary. The sisters within the order devoted themselves to caring for those who were sick and dying.

In 1891, the Anglican Sisters of the Society of St. Margaret opened the Hostel of God, which continues to care for critically ill patients in London to this day. Then in 1905, St. Josephs Hospice was founded in London’s East End by the Irish Sisters of Charity. It was here that what is known as the modern hospice movement started, through the work of Doctor Cicely Saunders.

Dr. Saunders developed doctor-training programs in order to improve the quality of palliative medicine. She also established the basic principles which have guided hospice care ever since.

1967 saw a new landmark in the world of hospice care, and in Dr. Saunders’ career: the opening of St. Christopher’s Hospice in South London. Today it still exists and still helps alleviate the emotional, physical, social and spiritual pain associated with dying.

Concurrent with Dr. Saunders’ work in London, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was about to launch the movement in force in the United States in the 1960s. She published her groundbreaking book in 1969, ON DEATH AND DYING. The book quickly became a bestseller and aroused interest in the idea of caring for patients who are dying.

From that point on, there was an explosion of hospices appearing throughout the United States. In fact, it’s been one of the country’s most rapidly-growing medical and social movements. The country’s first hospice program started in 1974. As of 2000, there were about 3,100 such hospices throughout the States, caring for more than 70,000 terminally-ill patients.

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