The first hospitals in the U.S. date back to the late colonial period when Benjamin Franklin first had the idea to establish a place for the sick and injured to go for care.
Until that time, and even for a long time thereafter, patients hired physicians to come to their homes to provide care.
That routine worked well enough for wealthy patients. But many people didn’t have a comfortable home and couldn’t afford the services of a private physician. So Franklin thought the hospital could provide a place for them.
Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia became the first hospital in the 13 colonies. Franklin raised funds and recruited physicians such as Dr. Thomas Bond to establish this hospital in the 1750s. One of the finest architects of that era designed the building, allowing plenty of air and light to enter.
From the beginning, Pennsylvania Hospital also had a “physick” garden on the grounds. Colonial physicians knew they could use plants as medicine. They brought knowledge of folk remedies back with them from Europe, and they learned about the effective local Native American remedies here in the States. But they didn’t necessarily trust the apothecaries who supplied packaged remedies. (Remind you of anything in our healthcare system today?)
In fact, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a leading colonial physician in Philadelphia at the time (and signer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776) recommended all doctors grow their own medicinal plants. (When I directed the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, which Rush also helped found in 1787, I raised funds to restore and rename their “physick” garden after Benjamin Rush. That garden still grows to this day.)
So having a garden on hospital grounds allowed physicians to grow their own herbal remedies and medicines right on site.
But in addition to the practical aspects, gardens on hospital grounds also provide healing and spiritual benefits as “green spaces.”
Hospital green spaces going the way of the dinosaurs
Of course, not everyone in medicine takes my view about the importance of green spaces for physical and mental healing and well-being. And considering modern hospitals are the most expensive real estate in the country, perhaps it’s no surprise that more and more of them are tearing down their green spaces to make way for one more glimmering, glittering “high-tech medical complex” after another.
Case in point: Prouty Garden at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, my own family’s children’s hospital when we were growing up.
Today, Prouty Garden is one of the country’s most important and historic hospital gardens. The Olmsted firm, made famous in the 19th century with its design of Central Park in New York City, designed the space.
But the current hospital administration recently proposed $1 billion expansion plans, which include sacrificing this legitimate healing garden to build a new clinical building. They want to “replace” the historic, healing garden with an anemic, scaled down green space, mostly on a roof and indoors.
My old friend Tom Paine, a distinguished landscape architect in Boston, recently reached out to me about the hospital’s plans to demolish the garden. He forwarded me a petition to save the garden, already signed by more than 15,000 former patients, parents, hospital staff, and concerned citizens. I hope you will consider signing your name too at www.saveprouty.org
Tom is a real gentleman and a scholar, and we stayed in touch with each other over the years. I first met him in 1976 when the Henry Luce Foundation sent us, along with a group of 13 other Luce Scholars, and spouses of those who were married, to experience working internships in Asia.
Tom also first worked on the Prouty Garden in 1976, the year of the U.S. Bicentennial and just before we left for our assignments in Asia. His new book Cities with Heart (China Architecture and Building Press, 2015) establishes him as a worldwide expert on the benefits of green spaces for human health.
Tom also served on my “blue ribbon” panel for a National Medical History Museum project in Washington, D.C., during the late 1980s and early 1990s. He has incorporated his knowledge of Asian concepts of Nature into his landscape design work, which of course, includes the ideas of balance and healing.
Nature is far better for your health than hospitals
In my view, green spaces have immeasurable value to hospitals in urban settings. As you know, I frequently write about the many good scientific studies linking green spaces in urban areas to health, healing, and fewer mental and physical disorders. In fact, I believe modern healthcare should remove about 80 percent of care away from hospitals because they are increasingly dangerous and toxic environments. I would move most health care to the burgeoning industry of natural resorts and spas.
Furthermore, I find children generally respond amazingly well to spending time in Nature. So hospital green spaces for sick children arguably present the most important green spaces of all.
As Tom explained to me, the best healing gardens have five important characteristics:
- They are located outdoors.
- They are secure, soothing, and quiet in every sense.
- They are immersive, allowing one to feel surrounded by Nature.
- They offer privacy.
- They invite exploration.
Prouty Garden possesses each of these characteristics and much more. Modern medicine emphasizes “evidence-based medicine,” data and accountability above all else. But, as Tom pointed out, ironically, Boston Children’s Hospital never bothered to calculate the value of the garden and its cost-effectiveness.
Many people think the presence of Central Park in New York is the one thing that makes that city livable. And I would personally agree. But you can’t put a price tag on that value.
I well remember my time spent in Beijing, China, the capital of the most populated country in the world. It has acres and acres of “green space” scattered throughout the central city. These spaces have spiritual significance to people that the Communist regime has never been able to erase.
I discuss the political, spiritual and health significance of green spaces, such as those found in New York and Beijing, in my book Celestial Healing with Singing Dragon Press. (You can read more about this book — or order a copy — here on my website.)
Saving hospital gardens is simple common sense
Overall, I was very moved by Tom’s eloquent and impassioned defense of this garden and green space. It remind me of the pleas of his namesake, Thomas Paine, (although not the same family), for some “common sense” in colonial America. Today, my friend Tom is arguing for some “common sense” in health and healing in hospitals.
So, if you live in the Boston area — or anywhere in New England — by all means contact the Community Relations Department at Boston Children’s Hospital and ask them to save Prouty Garden.
But don’t be surprised if you don’t get a response.
They appear to have a lamentable record of non-responsiveness to the general public, to the impassioned stories of hospital patients, to the parents of sick children (some of whom have asked to die in the garden), and to the Boston Children’s hospital physicians and other caregivers.
Nevertheless, I ask all my readers to please go to www.saveprouty.org and make your voices heard to help a wonderful campaign to save this priceless and symbolic garden for health and healing.