1354 to 2021: In the more than 650 years since its foundation, "Inselspital" has undergone countless changes. Locations were changed, buildings erected, rebuilt and demolished, the name changed and countless doctors and nurses cared for thousands of patients. A comprehensive history of the Inselspital would fill a library. The aim of this digital "Insel" (or "island" in English) story is more modest: On the basis of 30 XX stations, you will gain key insight into major and minor developments at Inselspital.


Always and forever

On 29 November 1354, Anna Seiler founded a hospital for 13 bedridden and needy people out of compassion and to secure her salvation. The number '13' is no coincidence, but reminds us of Jesus and his twelve disciples. The hospital operation was intended to be self-supporting. ,Anna Seiler therefore, bequeathed not only the accommodation with household goods – the house "in front of the preachers" on today's Zeughausgasse – but also alpine pastures and land holdings, the proceeds of which went to the hospital. It delegates supervision to the Schultheiss and the Council of the City of Bern – but with one condition: The hospital is to exist "always and forever".


Medieval hospitals

The Inselspital is not the only hospital in Bern. As early as the 13th century, there is evidence of the Heiliggeistspital (Hospital of the Holy Spirit) – just under 100 years later, the Niedere Spital (Lower Hospital). However, medieval and early modern hospitals – in contrast to Anna Seiler's foundation – were not only intended for the care of the sick. They cared for needy and poor people and served as a retirement home for a fee. Hospitals in the sense of clinics where doctors and nurses exclusively treat the sick and injured have only been established since the 18th century.


Old people's home or hospital?

The history of the Seilerin Hospital is not a linear success story: In the initial decades after its foundation, the hospital struggled with financial difficulties. The wealthy citizens of Bern and the city authorities were too supportive of other institutions such as the "Ellenden Herberge". In the 15th century, and to Anna Seiler's wishes, the hospital also developed more and more into a benefactor's house and thus into an old people's home for wealthy people. The first hospital regulations reacted to this development by limiting the number of benefactors.


A pioneering gift

Donations were an important source of income for Inselspital from the very beginning. Time and again, Bernese people bequeathed goods and money to the Inselspital. Sometimes to secure salvation; sometimes to acquire a sinecure. In 1456, for example, Anna von Krauchthal, the widow of a Bernese mayor, donated to the hospital, among other things, vineyards with a trough, a farm with annual rent and a piece of land "situated at the top of the hill in front of the city of Bern next to the road near the outer cross". The significance of this was not yet foreseeable in the 15th century. For it was only more than 400 years later that it would serve as building land for the new Inselspital.


Inselspital without an island

It is obvious: The Inselspital (translated literally as "Island Hospital") is not located on an island. So where does the name come from that is used so naturally? In 1528, the Bernese authorities also reorganised the hospital system as part of the Reformation. The Seilerinspital was, therefore, moved in 1531 from "Zeughausgasse" to the building of the dissolved Dominican convent of St. Michael, which had previously stood on a peninsula in the Aare near Altenberg. When the Seilerinspital moved into the premises of the "Inselkloster", it also took over the name and the Seilerinspital thus became the Inselspital.


Ram's Horns

Today, the "Insel" logo consists of the word mark 'Inselspital' and a coat of arms. The coat of arms shows a green shield with two curved lines. It is based on the hospital's first surviving coat of arms from 1578, which was mounted above an old stable. On it are two averted rams' horns on a so-called five-mountain. The origin of the coat of arms is unclear, but it resembles the coat of arms of Anna Seiler's father. Over the centuries, there have been changes time and again: The stylised ram's horns, however, have remained to this day.


Hospital reforms

The Bernese authorities enacted several hospital reforms in the 16th and 17th centuries. They wanted to eliminate deficiencies in operations, organisation and nursing care and, last but not least, reduce costs. In 1643, for example, the councillors and citizens approved a new budgetary order that saved costs, especially in the compensation of doctors and surgeons, as well as in the purchase of food.


The "sickness parade"

In the early modern period, the Inselspital had just 39 beds in six rooms. That is why sick people could not simply enter the Inselspital without further ado, but had to first undergo a so-called "Schau" or "parade" and prove their neediness. The decree of 1645 provides information about the procedure: On behalf of the Bernese Council, doctors and wound specialists decided on an admission in a type of sickness parade room. If someone was suffering from a contagious or incurable disease, admission would be refused. The rush remained great, meaning that Bernese citizens were given preferential treatment and sick people were turned away again and again. The appearance of patients in a parade room was not abandoned until 1923.



Supervision of the hospital has been the responsibility of the Cantonal Mayor and the Great Council of Bern since its foundation. They appoint a hospital master and the chief bailiff. In 1715, the regulations were again amended and the management of the Inselspital was thus newly regulated. The only body that stood between the Lower Council and the Inspector was the Directorate, which issued instructions to the Administrator. The hospital remains an independent foundation. Operations continued to be ensured by the proceeds from goods and equipment.


A palace for the poor

The hospital building was in desolate condition in the early 18th century: In 1713, a contemporary witness stated that even a healthy person would fall ill in the Inselspital and the press spoke of it being a "murderous house". When a fire caused additional damage, the city planned a new building. Between 1718 and 1724, a three-storey sandstone building resembling a "royal palace" was built on the same site. There were 45 beds for patients and 6 for warders, meals were prepared in a separate kitchen and operations would now take place in a corner room with lots of daylight. It must not be forgotten that only the poor went to hospital. Those who had money and space could be treated at home. The hospital could not offer any examination, care or therapy that could not be carried out in a apartment.


A training school

From the 17th century at the latest, the Inselspital also served as a teaching institution. The city doctors offered anatomy courses or performed operations in front of trainee doctors and surgeons. However, the teaching was not very systematic. In 1765, Albrecht von Haller demanded in an expert apprasial that the training of surgeons and midwives should be under managed under medical control. The Inselspital would go on to serve as the central training facility and courses and examinations were to be introduced. The authorities only partially implemented Haller's proposals. It was not until 1805 that a state-run, clearly regulated medical faculty was created for the first time at the newly founded academy, following the French model.


From a hospital for the poor to a university hospital

Bedside teaching has been part of medical training since the 18th century. But it was not until 1834 that the University of Bern was founded, including a medical faculty. Thus, the Insel was to become a university hospital, where teaching at the hospital bed was to become institutionalised and research began gaining in importance. The cooperation between the Insel and the university proved productive, but did not run smoothly. The relationship between health care and education and especially the financial obligations of the state led to numerous discussions well into the 20th century.


The "Kreuzmatte"

The building from 1724, once celebrated as a "palace", no longer met the requirements a good 150 years later. In a referendum held in 1880, the voters approved a cantonal contribution for a new building on the Kreuzmatte outside the town, donated by Anna von Krauchthal in 1456. To finance this, the "Inselkorporation" also went on to sell the old hospital to the federal government as well as other properties, forests and property rights in the Alps. Even the wives of the hospital’s civil servants and doctors raised 100,000 Swiss francs for the new building by holding a specially dedicated "bazaar". After a construction period of only three years, the new hospital was able to be moved into its new location in 1884.


Medicine in the countryside

For a long time, Inselspital was the only hospital run by the state. From the 1830s onwards, the first "emergency rooms" with six to twelve beds were built. In the late 19th century, the need for medical care also increased sharply in rural areas. Advances in surgery and acute medicine, as well as the increasing demands of the population, led to the foundation of several regional hospitals – for example, in Aarberg in 1878, Münsingen in 1879, Riggisberg in 1894 or Belp in 1905. Since 2016, these have belonged to the hospital group, as does "Tiefenauspital", which was created in 1913.


Nee nor nee nor...

Every day, the Bernese medical service would go out on blue lights and with sirens blaring – they carried out more than 20,000 missions per year. Such beginnings are more modest: During a severe influenza epidemic in 1890, the city purchased a two-horse horse-drawn carriage to transport the sick. Finally, in 1904, the "Sanitätspolizei" (Sanitary Police) was founded. It continues to transport the sick by carriage until it acquired a motorised ambulance in 1917. The "Tribelhorn" electric vehicle brought patients to the Inselspital at a speed of up to 30 kilometres per hour. In 1925, the city purchased a Cadillac with an internal combustion engine for 20,000 Swiss francs, and from 1959 onwards, ambulances drive through Bern with blue lights and horns for the first time.


Cutting-edge medicine

In the early 20th century, several doctors from the Inselspital achieved international recognition, each with a different specialisation. 1909 was a particular highlight: Theodor Kocher received the Nobel Prize for his research on thyroid surgery and physiology. The internist Hermann Sahli was one of the most productive and innovative minds in his field. Josef Jadassohn was considered a pioneer in the research of skin diseases and made Bern a European centre of dermatology.


Spanish Flu

The Spanish flu of 1918/19 hit the city of Bern hard. The Inselspital was unable to accommodate all patients, so two school buildings were converted into emergency hospitals. Scientists went on to discover a lot about infectious diseases from 1880 onwards. In Bern, too, there has been a well-equipped Institute for Bacteriology in place since 1895 and, attached to it, the Swiss Serum and Vaccination Institute. Nevertheless, doctors disagree about what exactly triggered this outbreak of flu and why it was often so severe. Above all, the therapeutic options were very limited. In the canton of Bern alone, 4658 alone people would succumb to the flu.



Following the erection of the new building on Kreuzmatte, further clinics and institutes were to be built within a few years: Bacteriology (1895), Pathology (1896), Radiology (1896), Dermatology (1891), Hospital Pharmacy (1898), Eye Clinic (1908). The new buildings reflected the progressive specialisation of natural science medicine. In the period from 1850 to 1950, a different medical subject would become independent with its own chair and clinic, every six years on average.


Beautiful Hospitals

Since the move to Kreuzmatte, a range of very different buildings were constructed: large, small, beautiful, functional. They reflected not only the development of medicine, but also the architectural style of the time. The Lory-Spital is one particular gem. It was completed in 1929 as a "hospital for the chronically ill" according to plans by the architects Otto Rudolf Salvisberg and Otto Brechbühl. It offered large sunbathing areas for the tuberculosis patients to sunbathe and enjoy the fresh air. With its functional structure, business-like façade and generous park, it was representative of the New Building movement around 1930 and was considered a pioneering work of architectural modernism in Bern. Today, it is a listed building.


The Women and the Inselspital

With the founders Anna Seiler and Anna von Krauchthal, women played a central role in the history of the Inselspital. But for centuries, leadership remained in the hands of men. It was not until 1947 that Albertine Blumer-Nenninger was elected to the Board of Administrators for the first time – but she remained an exception. In 1959, Thea Märki, the Hospital Director, became the first woman to sit on the hospital directorate. The women of Bern were also not allowed to vote on structural changes until after the introduction of women's suffrage in 1971.



The Inselspital is an international company: Currently, nearly 11,000 employees from 102 nations work for the hospital group. Until well into the 19th century, however, staff and patients came mainly from Switzerland. It was not until the university was founded that the first professors from Germany came to Bern. In the second half of the year, the economic boom and the shortage of staff also led to increased immigration in Bern. The proportion of foreign staff thus began increasing in all professional groups at Inselspital.



The Inselspital grew in the second half of the 20th century. An increasing number of staff were treating (and caring for) a growing number of patients. The need for blood and urine tests was also increasing. In 1964, the Board of Administrators decided to create a central chemical laboratory. In the following five years, the laboratories of the various clinics and facilities were combined and the central chemical laboratory was officially inaugurated in 1969. At the same time, a school for medical laboratory assistants was founded, methods were standardised, and a punch card system was introduced, which made it possible to automate certain analyses and thus eliminate sources of error.


Medical technology

In the second half of the 20th century, Bernese women doctors, surgeons and researchers continued the tradition of cooperation with industry. Maurice E. Müller (1918-2009), for example, developed new forms of hip prostheses that spread internationally thanks to their reliability and durability. With the "Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Osteosynthesefragen" (Working Group for Osteosynthesis Issues), he also helped to ensure that the surgical treatment of bone fractures would go on to become more widespread. (Link module "Research")


Nursing emergency

In 1966, the Inselspital founded its own nursing school. It was intended not least to counteract the staff shortage, a notorious situation and not just in Bern: In the 20th century, a nursing emergency became evident at regular intervals. Thus, there was also a chronic shortage of staff in the 1970s. In 1971, only 496 of 564 nursing posts are filled. The Directorate reacted with further measures: It reorganised the nursing service, expanded the school for hospital assistants, cooperated with the cantonal nursing school and introduced Sunday and night bonuses.


High-rise beds

On 29 November 1970, after five years of construction, the 78-metre, 22-storey high-rise hospital bed tower was inaugurated. In its planning, the building commission was guided by the latest developments in hospital construction. In order to guarantee its smooth operation, doctors, nursing staff and construction managers reviewed all processes in a "model floor" before its opening, and made improvements thereafter. The building was then also to be cutting-edge from a technical standpoint and was considered a prime example of an efficient hospital.


Lesson time

After the Second World War, medicine and research experienced a further surge in development. The medical faculty developed into a large enterprise with around 50 special disciplines and institutes. From the mid-1960s, the professor for internal medicine, Hannes G. Pauli, together with the Director of the Children's Hospital, Ettore Rossi, began pushing ahead with an educational reform. Models in Sweden, England, France and the USA served as a basis for future development. The nationwide reform of medical studies in 1971, which was intended to make clinical teaching more practice-oriented, was largely based on the Bern model. This also included the use of new, audiovisual media.



As a large enterprise, Inselspital was now dependent on the proper functioning of a complex logistics system and was constantly resorting to new technologies for this purpose. As early as the 1960s, Inselspital began to process its data electronically. In 1965, the first payroll accounting was implemented and, in 1969, an EDP department was created, which also developed its own programmes. In the 1970s, digitisation was further advanced and a patient admission system was established.


The best for the children

For a long time, there were no hospitals specialising in children. In Bern, too, it was Julie von Jenner's will that laid the foundation for the Jenner-Kinderspital – a dedicated hospital for children – which opened in 1858. In 1962, the canton of Bern bought the hospital and transferred its operation to the Inselspital. The new head Ettore Rossi helped Bern paediatrics to achieve a great upswing and also soon began pushing ahead with the planning of a new building. After fourteen years of planning and construction, the new children's hospital was inaugurated in 1978. The hospital staff soon called it "Rossi Palace".



Since the founding of Inselspital, the recovery process of those who were sick had been the central focus of attention. From the second half of the 20th century onwards, the hospital endeavoured to meet the needs of patients and to make their stay as pleasant as possible. For example, visiting hours were extended several times or questionnaires were sent to discharged patients from 1979 onwards to determine levels of satisfaction. The rooms were also getting bigger, the beds more comfortable and the food better.


A small town

The Inselspital developed into a large enterprise in the 20th century. The number of patients and employees rose sharply. Numerous supporting businesses became necessary to be able to fulfil the core mission of patient care. The workshops, the laundry, the hotel business, the building cleaning, the logistics or the company fire brigade contributed to the proper functioning of the hospital.


Apparatus medicine

In the second half of the 20th century, large, technical apparatus began gaining in importance. Whether for ventilation during an operation, diagnosis with imaging procedures or therapy with radiation or shock waves: The Inselspital also began making increasing use of complex devices, which on the one hand were celebrated as "miracles of technology", but on the other hand triggered discussions about the rising costs in the healthcare system.


Glitz & Gloria

Thousands of patients were now being cared for, nursed or operated on at Inselspital every year. Sometimes, even celebrities were in need of medical care, which the media would then report on extensively. For example, racing driver Marc Surer was hospitalised twice in Inselspital after accidents in 1980 and 1986, and in 1992 Federal Councillor René Felber had to undergo an operation to treat his bladder cancer. Two years later, his colleague Otto Stich was taken to Inselspital after collapsing, at which point he received a pacemaker.



Medicine and society are constantly evolving. Inselspital not only had to overcome the current challenges, but already make decisions for the future that would take into account the needs of medicine, patients and residents. In 2015, the voters of Bern approved a new development ordinance. Over a period of several years, the existing buildings were to be supplemented by new buildings. In this way, focal centres were to be created around the emergency and surgery centre, for example, for heart, stroke or cancer patients.



The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic demanded radical adjustments not only from the public but also from Inselspital: "social distancing", isolation, testing, a halt on surgery, bed occupancy, ventilation and overload are terms that were to take on a new meaning in the hospital. The future will bring further challenges, both foreseeable and as yet unknown. The story of Inselspital continues...


Selective bibliography

  • Boschung, Urs (2005a): Vom Streit um Betten zur engen Zusammenarbeit, in: UniPress (125/2005), S. 9-10.

  • Boschung, Urs (2005b): Das Geschenk der Frau Anna Seiler: 650 Jahre Berner Inselspital, in: Vorname Nachname Herausgeber/-in, Alpenhorn-Kalender 2005, S. 104-118.

  • Boschung, Urs (2005c): Wie Pferdeäpfel die damalige Spitalhygiene vorantrieben, in: Insel-Magazin (2005/1), S. 12-13.

  • Haas, Leonhard (1969): Lenins Frau als Patientin bei Schweizer Ärzten, in: Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, 17(3), S. 420–436.

  • Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz: https://hls-dhs-dss.ch/

  • Inselspital-Stiftung (Hg.) (2004): 650 Jahre Inselspital. Stets und ewig, Bern.

  • Leu, Fritz (Hg.) (2006): Das Inselspital: Geschichte des Universitätsspitals Bern 1954-2004, Bern.

  • Rennefahrt, Hermann & Hintzsche, Erich (1954): Sechshundert Jahre Inselspital 1354-1954, Bern.

  • Rüedi, Elisabeth (2008): Die Pflege und das Pflegemanagement in ständigem Wandel: Geschichte der Krankenpflege im Inselspital 1954-2004, Zürich.

  • Scandola, Pietro (Hg.) (1984): Hochschulgeschichte Berns, 1528-1984. Bern.

  • Täuber, Martin G. (2005): Die Medizinische Fakultät zwischen Universität und Spital, in: UniPress (125/2005), S. 11-14.

  • Thurnherr, Yvonne (1944): Die Stadtärzte und ihr Amt im alten Bern, Bern.