In the early 1800s, the sick poor of Boston had no hospital to turn to—just the almshouse, which functioned as a make­shift clinic. In the race for preeminence among the country’s major cities, Boston’s city fathers worried that theirs would fall behind Philadelphia and New York, which already had hospitals.

The city would have to wait until Feb. 25, 1811 for the Massachusetts legislature to grant a charter that founded what would become Massachusetts General Hospital, and then 10 more years for it to be built.

It wasn’t just the public that clamored for a hospital. Across the river in Cambridge, the growing Harvard Medical School not only needed more space for lectures; it also needed readier access to patients.

In 1810, John C. Warren and James Jackson, physicians at the medical school, published a circular stating the case for a Boston hospital and seeking donations. “The relief to be afforded to the poor, in a country so rich as ours, should perhaps be measured only by their necessities,” they wrote.

Citizens donated thousands of dollars (and, a few years after the hospital opened, an unusual fund-raising tool: an Egyptian mummy named Padihershef, who could be seen for a quarter at Mr. Doggett’s Repository of the Arts in Boston).

The trustees bought a four-acre lot called Prince’s Pasture, and the renowned Boston architectCharles Bulfinch designed a majestic building (pictured) that today bears his name, crowning it with a surgical amphitheater. The 60-bed hospital admitted its first patient in September 1821—a 30-year-old saddler with syphilis. A few weeks later, a second patient, a sailor with prolapsed hemorrhoids, had his situation corrected by a surgeon while four men held the writhing patient to his bed.

Throughout two centuries, MGH has become known not only as a teaching hospital but as a leader in medical innovation as well. In addition to the first demonstration of ether as an anesthetic, in an 1846 operation (led by Warren and silently observed by Padihershef, who had taken up residence in the amphitheater that would forever after be known as the Ether Dome), MGH pioneered advances in medicine and surgery; in the treatment of mental health; and in advancing nursing as a profession.

Today, as physicians, nurses, students and others tend to more than 1.5 million patients who occupy the hospital’s 900-plus beds or receive care through myriad outpatient programs each year, scientists employ an annual research budget of $650 million while they work toward the next breakthroughs.