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Hospital quiet zones

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Most descriptions of hospitals have emphasised their appearance and smell - but how did they sound? Over the centuries, the noises of hospitals have changed significantly and tell us much about these institutions and the experiences of patients.

Early hospitals were not silent, but were characterised by much conversation and consultation. As religious and reforming institutions, medieval hospitals resonated with the sounds of prayers and sermons. Communication within hospitals in the 1700s was conducted through the use of bells, a separate bell having announced emergencies, meals and the start of church services. Hospital rules were also read to patients on the wards on a daily basis into the Victorian period.

Such rules were equally concerned with regulating the sounds of patients. There were restrictions on talking and family visits. From the 1700s, European hospitals also isolated people who appeared to be delirious or have mental illnesses. With the introduction of anaesthesia, surgery was no longer accompanied by the screams of patients in pain. New materials and architectural designs also aimed to minimise noise.

The noises outside institutions were also controlled and reduced. Originally built on the edges of cities, hospitals were drawn into the heart of communities as urban centres grew throughout the 1800s. Speed limits were imposed on vehicles around hospitals, and streets were covered in straw to minimise the sound of carts and pedestrians.

With the introduction of electricity in the late 1800s, bells inside hospitals were replaced with soundless call buttons. Silence was considered crucial to a patient’s recovery. Signs outside many contemporary hospitals remind the public that hospitals have become quiet zones.



M Smith (ed.), Hearing History: A Reader (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004)