The Long History of San Lazaro as the Hospital of Last Resort

IMAGE Wikimedia Commons/Leon Gallery Archives

When people hear the name San Lazaro Hospital, images of the worst cases of contagious diseases come to mind: rabies, cholera, and for a time, leprosy.

The hospital has earned a reputation of being a hospital of last resort, owing to the centuries of it being the refuge of people dying from highly contagious diseases. Its namesake propagated its almost mythical status: St. Lazarus, the man who had risen from the dead before Jesus Christ.

Throughout its history, a mixture of hope and stigma surrounded the hospital. On one hand, people brought here were hopeful that they will recover. On the other hand, the same people were ostracized by society for their afflictions.


San Lazaro Hospital’s Spanish Colonial Roots

San Lazaro Hospital was founded in 1577 by Juan Clemente, a Spanish Friar. Clemente established San Lazaro as a dispensary clinic and became a hospital a year later in 1578. It was initially located inside Intramuros. The hospital admitted patients suffering from leprosy and other contagious diseases.

At the time, there was no cure for leprosy, and patients admitted at the hospital were in perpetual quarantine. The Spanish authorities realized that the hospital’s location was precariously close to the seat of government. Possibly out of concern (or disgust), requests were made to relocate the hospital. It would take another 29 years in 1784 before the King of Spain would order the relocation of the hospital from Intramuros to its present-day location, which used to be a field of rice paddies.


Historical Map Shows San Lazaro Hospital in the Middle of Rice Paddies

Photo by Leon Gallery Archives.

Photo by Leon Gallery Archives.

Photo by Leon Gallery Archives.

In this 1894 map, Plano de Manila y Sus Arrabales (Map of Manila and Its Suburbs), the San Lazaro Hospital is shown situated in the middle of rice paddies after it was relocated from Intramuros. The area was known as Hacienda Mayhaligue.

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According to Lisa Guerrero Nakpil, curator and historical artifacts expert at the Leon Gallery, the location had a significant purpose.

“As you can see from the location, it was intended to quarantine,” said Nakpil in an interview with Esquire Philippines.

The map survived through the centuries thanks to the way it was kept. “It was folded, preserving its colors, and pasted on linen,” said Nakpil.

Four years after this map was published, the Americans took over the hospital’s administration. For practical purposes, they used the hospital as a facility that specializes in contagious diseases including leprosy.

From 1898 to 1917, the Americans managed the hospital. They turned over the administration to Filipinos in 1918. In the 1930s, the Filipinos moved the hospital’s patients suffering from insanity to the National Mental Hospital.

According to the San Lazaro Hospital website, in 1949, the hospital transferred its patients suffering from leprosy to the Tala Leprosarium in Caloocan, which was renamed Central Luzon Sanitarium, and is now known as Dr. Jose N. Rodriguez Memorial Hospital. 

San Lazaro Hospital Today

Today, the San Lazaro Hospital functions as a referral facility for infectious diseases. It was the first hospital that responded to the first cases of COVID-19 in the Philippines.

In the 1980s, San Lazaro became the central hospital that accepted HIV/AIDS patients, according to its website.

At present, the hospital remains a special tertiary hospital under the Department of Health. It receives funding from the national government.

The 500-bed capacity hospital provides free healthcare services to the poor, and remains to be a pillar of hope for people stigmatized for their afflictions.

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