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of the foundation

Pourtalès Hospital


In 2008, the Pourtalès Hospital Foundation celebrated its 200th anniversary. For the people of Neuchâtel, the name Pourtalès is primarily associated with a hospital and a Cressier wine. However, many people are unaware that behind this name there was a man who, through his will, his diligence and the fortune he had built up, enabled the creation of this illustrious establishment that is the Pourtalès Hospital.

His descendants made great efforts to ensure the company's continued existence, just as its founder had wanted. 200 years of exciting history, begun at the dawn of the 19th century by a visionary philanthropist named Jacques-Louis de Pourtalès.


Jacques-Louis de Pourtalès

Jacques-Louis de Pourtalès (1722 - 1814) made his fortune trading in silver, colonial goods and, above all, Indiennes. He bought these famous painted canvases from the manufactures in Neuchâtel and sold them all over the world.

In his 86th year, as a sign of gratitude to God, he expressed the desire to found and perpetually maintain a hospital for the destitute with 30 to 40 beds, as such an establishment was lacking in Neuchâtel:

"(...) by occupying myself with such a gentle duty, I am going, at an advanced age when everything reminds me of the nothingness of human things, to procure for my heart an enjoyment in keeping with the only feelings that should henceforth animate it (...)" ("Pourtalès 1808 - 2008. Une fondation au service d'un hôpital", Gilles Attinger, Hauterive, 2008, pp.13-14).

In the general provisions of the deed of foundation of his hospital, Jacques-Louis de Pourtalès specified, among other things :

"(...) In this building, indigents suffering from illnesses likely to be treated (...) will be received, without any payment whatsoever. (...) The hospital will be open to all sick indigents, subjects and inhabitants of the State, as well as to foreigners who have fallen ill in the country, without distinction of nationality or religion, and all other circumstances being equal, fathers and mothers of families with children will be given preference. (...) A few flats will be set aside to accommodate poor mothers, especially in winter, and to care for them during and after childbirth. (...) I intend that the chief surgeon will receive a sufficiently high salary to encourage him to take particular care of the patients entrusted to him. (...)" (idem, pp. 14-15)

Thus, at the Hôpital Pourtalès, the poorest patients and women in childbirth would be treated correctly and free of charge, without distinction of nationality or religion. A fine spirit of tolerance and solidarity in the early 19th century. The donor urged the administrators, doctors and nursing staff to "carefully avoid any expenditure on luxury and decoration", as the Foundation was to be distinguished "only by the effectiveness of its aid, by its orderliness and by its extreme cleanliness". (idem, p. 15)

In 1808, when the hospital was founded, he earmarked 600,000 French francs (a very large sum in monetary terms at the time) for the building itself and set aside the same amount of capital to be invested in "buildings with a secure and constant yield". (idem, p. 15) This would ensure the long-term upkeep and running of the establishment. This is how the Pourtalès Hospital Foundation acquired various buildings as well as several vineyards, including the current Domaine Hôpital Pourtalès in Cressier.

Once the deed of foundation had been signed, Jacques-Louis de Pourtalès sent it to Louis-Alexandre Berthier, then Prince of Neuchâtel, to seek his approval. Berthier gave his approval in the following terms:

"Mr Pourtalès the elder, I received your letter of 14 January this year. I read it carefully, as well as the memorandum concerning the hospital that you are willing to found in Neuchâtel. I could not fail to be moved by the sentiments you express in it, and by your intention to allocate a sum of 600,000 francs to such a useful establishment. (...) I approve your project in its entirety, and declare myself to be its first supporter. (...) ". (idem, p.16).



Tossed about by the vagaries of politics, climate and progress

In 1812, after less than a year in operation, the hospital was faced with the occupation of the country by Austrian troops. This military presence hampered the hospital's activities and led to additional costs. Deficits increased, also due to successive bad wine years.

After the Napoleonic episode under the reign of Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier, which had linked the fate of the principality to the ups and downs of the French Empire, 1814 marked the return of Neuchâtel to the bosom of the House of Prussia. On 12 September that same year, the principality became part of the Swiss Confederation. That year also saw the death of Jacques-Louis de Pourtalès in his 92nd year. He was buried in a cemetery created for him to the north of the settlement.

 Until the departure of Dr. de Castella in 1855, the hospital practised traditional 18th-century medicine, with few innovations. His successor, Dr. Cornaz, was responsible for many changes. In particular, as early as 1891, he put forward the idea of creating a maternity unit, an idea that was totally in line with the founder's vision. His successor, Dr César Matthey, took up the idea again, and the maternity unit was built around 1900. The project was well received by the public and many donations made it possible.

 Right up to the present day, the Hôpital Pourtalès has been the scene of many and varied developments: vaccinations, the installation of electricity, the telephone, the use of x-rays, the lift, the refrigerator, heating, numerous extensions to the buildings, the creation of the maternity ward, the children's hospital, antibiotics, physiotherapy, the washing machine, anaesthesia, etc.
Tossed about by the ups and downs of national and international politics and faced with recurring funding problems, the foundation was forced, in 1920, to put pure philanthropy aside by demanding minimum sums. The sacred principle of gratuity was thus broken as a result of disastrous economic circumstances.


Independence or cutting-edge medicine?

The Hôpital de Pourtalès has always been faced with a paradox: should it invest in order to stay ahead in the medical field, at the risk of losing some of its independence, or should it stagnate because its financial resources were no longer sufficient?

A mismatch between the weight of tradition and the realities of an evolving medicine. As early as 1955, the Hôpital Pourtalès accepted a few subsidies from the public purse. The Foundation managed to maintain its finances until then with the support of the Pourtalès Hospital family and friends, but from 1964 onwards, the costs of modern medicine reached heights out of all proportion to the Foundation's capital and income.

In 1971, talks between Count Louis-Albert de Pourtalès and the city and municipalities of the canton of Neuchâtel led to the decision that the foundation's deficits would be covered by the city of Neuchâtel for a transitional period until it put its hospital policy in order. In 1978, following profound changes in medical and hospital techniques, as well as developments in social security, the City of Neuchâtel took over responsibility for the hospital complex.

The hospital site was donated to the town, while the Foundation retained ownership of the other movable and immovable assets, in particular the Cressier vineyard. Its profits were then used to cover the Pourtalès Hospital's deficit, in keeping with the charitable intentions of its founder, Jacques-Louis de Pourtalès. Today, these funds are used to finance projects aimed at improving the comfort of Pourtalès Hospital patients.

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