Medical Maze: Part II

Harborview Medical Center, Seattle. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015


The modern hospital traces its roots back to Greek temples of healing, which were often caves set near streams or pools of water. There was an elaborate set of initiations that ill people went through in order to enter the sacred space of healing from the outside profane world. Bathing and the donning of clean, flowing robes. Going barefoot and ridding oneself of rings or other jewelry. Then, being given a pallet in a large, communal sleeping space, an enkoimeteria, where patients slept side by side as they were to do centuries later in open hospital wards. The Greek temples of healing had stone tablets, iamata, set outside the entrances. The tablets were inscribed with healing narratives—testimonials—in the form of poetry or brief prose, all written in third person. Ancient Greek healing practices included bathing, exercise, special diets, dream divination, and bloodletting. Prayers at an altar at the threshold, the entrance to the healing space. Sacrifices of animals and offerings of food.

The business of hospitals, in Ancient Greece as well as now, is life, illness, and death. Everyone who enters the hospital as a patient emigrates—at least temporarily—to the land of the sick. It is a shadow-land, a liminal space where tides ebb and flow, a place that offers glimpses of the abyss. As the surgeon Richard Selzer points out, a hospital is alive: “The walls palpitate to the rhythm of its heart, while in and out the window fly daydreams and nightmares. It is a dynamism that is transmitted to the hospital by the despair and the yearning of the sick.” (p. 33).


Quote above is from: Selzer, Richard. “Down from Troy, Part 1” in The Exact Location of the Soul: New and Selected Essays. New York: Picador, 2001, Print.

The Color of Hospitals

Detail from “The Truth and Nothing But the Truth” mixed media installation, 1989, Gayle Bard. Main lobby of the University of Washington Medical Center.

What is the color of hospitals? For most people it’s that peculiar, putrid-green of hospitals we now associate with the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and other nightmarish, disorienting places of illness, distress, disease, and death. The fact that Martha Stewart has revived the shade, renaming it ‘Sea Glass Green,’ and making it oh-so-hip-retro mixed with ‘Jadeite’ green, doesn’t make it much better.

I did a bit of historical research into ‘hospital green’ for an essay I am writing called ‘Medical Maze,’ about the disorientation caused by our modern health care system for patients, families, staff, and students. Over my years working and teaching and researching within health care, I had heard rumors now and then that the hospital green had something to do with blood. Turns out, these rumors were correct.

Much of our modern health care system–especially the growth and technological advances within health care–come from wars. Hospital green, originally called ‘spinach green,’  was invented during WWI by the American surgeon Harry Sherman. At the time, most all surfaces of hospitals and clinics were painted white, the color associated with purity and cleanliness. Dr. Sherman, who was busy doing numerous surgeries in St. Luke’s San Francisco hospital, found the contrast of blood against the white sheets and walls and staff uniforms to be too glaring. He couldn’t discern the fine detail of the anatomy of patients necessary for successful surgeries. So, using color theory, he experimented with different colors and in 1914 he came up with the ‘spinach green’ as a complement to blood red. He convinced the hospital to help him create a totally green operating room–walls, sheets, and the surgeon’s uniforms. I imagine though, that the St. Luke’s nurses kept their white hats and uniforms. The ‘spinach’ hospital green quickly spread to other hospitals across North America.

At around the same time, the East Coast-based hospital architect, William Ludlow, also advocated the use of ‘calming green’ within hospitals, as well as other ‘colors of nature’ including “…the glorious golden yellow of sunshine.” (Note, this is not the sickly jaundiced yellow of the hospital and health sciences complex I currently work in.) Reading some of what Ludlow wrote about hospitals, I’ve discovered a strong liking for the man. In an article he wrote in 1918 in The Modern Hospital, he states, “the word ‘hospital’ brings to mind a huge caravanary of austere aspect without and glaring white sterility within, a pile without cheer and without welcome.” He goes on to point out that hospitals at the time were built around the mass casualty wartime hospital model, and thus were not designed with individual health and well-being in mind. The title of his article (and speech before the Twentieth Annual American Hospital Association meeting) was: “In Time of War Prepare for Peace–War Time Psychology Forced Us to Think of Men In Terms of Groups, But it is Individual Soul That Counts In Every Sphere–Including Hospitals.”