Mt. Malady: ‘For their comfort and recoverie’

About 25 years ago, according to Dennis A. J. Morey, leaders of Henrico Doctors' Hospital got into a discussion about whether the institution could claim the banner of Henrico's first hospital.

When officials looked into their hold on that claim, however, it turned out that they had been well off the mark.

More than three centuries off, as a matter of fact.

And that, Morey told a lecture audience, was how he got involved with the Henricus Foundation.

“I was chief of staff at Henrico Doctors' Hospital," said Morey. "We learned we weren’t the first Henrico hospital, and the staff thought it’d be good if we rebuilt [the first one].”

A week after that brown-bag lecture, at Henricus Publick Days 2003, it was Morey who gave the order to a dozen or so men to lift a 1,000-pound wooden wall into place – the first wall of the reconstructed Mt. Malady.

After those discussions of the 1980s, and the commitment to rebuild the first hospital, the retired gastroenterologist had gone on to become a founder of Henricus Historical Park – the setting for the original Mount Malady.

A re-creation of the second successful English settlement in North America, Henricus today boasts numerous colonial-era buildings constructed in the wattle and daub style, not to mention a blacksmith's forge and tradesman's area, crop and tobacco fields, tobacco barn and husbandry buildings.

But the Mount Malady building – re-created with the help of a $250,000 contribution from HCA Richmond Hospital – might be called a centerpiece.

Built in 1612, the original Mt. Malady was not merely the first hospital in Henrico.

As the first hospital in North America, its establishment ranks No. 13 on the Henrico Citizen's list of the most significant moments in Henrico's 400-year history.

At the 2006 dedication of the new Mount Malady, Peter Marmenstein, CEO of CJW Medical Center, and Del. John O'Bannon were among the speakers who lauded the collaboration among localities, citizens and corporations that had brought the project to fruition.

“This is a wonderful story,” said O’Bannon. “Local government partners, working together, had the foresight to realize what this could become, [and joined] HCA from the private sector and citizens on the Henricus Foundation. “

‘For the sicke and lame’
In the first written mention of the original Mount Malady, Robert Johnson of London noted in a description of settlement construction, "Here they were building also an Hospitall with fourscore lodging, and beds alreadie sent to furnish them for the sicke and lame, with keepers' to attend them for their comfort and recoverie."

Most likely, the original Mt. Malady was a a long, narrow structure protected by a palisade or paled fence. It held about 40 beds for 80 patients – a step up from the typical European hospital of the time, which might have housed four or more patients of mixed gender per bed, forcing them to sleep head-to-toe in rotating shifts.

Modern hospital amenities such as white linens and sanitized instruments were unheard of. As were doctors, for the most part.

Colonists were cared for by friends, family, and even the soldiers assigned to protect the hospital. Barber-surgeons might have also staffed Mount Malady, performing such duties as tooth extractions and bleedings and treating intestinal worms – in addition to shaving and cutting hair.

Mt. Malady also differed from modern hospitals in its foremost purpose, which was to serve as a retreat or guest house similar to today's “assisted living."

For many colonists, Mt. Malady was the first stop as they arrived in the New World. After an Atlantic voyage lasting two to four months, a stay at the hospital gave settlers time to recover from their journey and become acclimatized or "seasoned" to Virginia's unaccustomed heat and humidity.

But when those incoming settlers brought infectious disease with them – or when settlers contracted typhoid fever, dysentery and salt poisoning by drinking contaminated water from shallow wells or the James – Mt. Malady would become an acute care facility.

Protecting ‘investments’
Probably no one wanted Mt. Malady to succeed more than The Virginia Company officials.

After all, many settlers represented significant investments to the company, which had financed their passages with the expectation of several years of indenture in return. If a settler died owing years of work, The Virginia Company lost money.

As a “herbologist” mixed potions at the 2006 dedication, he reminded guests how perilously close the Virginia colony came to failing due to illness at Jamestown. The settlers almost gave up and went home before Lord de La Warre arrived at Jamestown in 1610.

“Of the first 3600 who came to the colony, 3,000 didn’t make it past a year,” the herbologist said. As someone told me, ‘Come to Virginia and Die’ doesn’t make a real good bumper sticker!”

But in 1611, Sir Thomas Dale headed upriver from Jamestown to the healthier and more secure environment on the high bluff at Henricus.

And this past May, as Henricus celebrated its 400th anniversary with a weekend devoted to Mt. Malady activities, a crowd of hundreds came to observe demonstrations by barber-surgeon re-enactors and participate in making home brews, remedies, and potions. They heard talks about the role of women as primary healers within the home in colonial and Virginia Indian cultures, and saw for themselves what settlers described four centuries ago as a "convenient, strong, healthie and a sweete seate to plant a new Towne in."

And if visitors wondered how a hospital perched on that "sweete seate" on the banks of the James could be tagged with such a negative name, they wondered no longer.

The name, which at first glance seems to be a corruption of the French word for illness, is not French at all. According to Dr. Morey's research, Mt. Malady's name is actually derived from "Milady," or the Virgin Mary.

For details about Henricus, call 748-1613 or visit

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