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Oxford's Radcliffe Hospital Heritage

PUBLISHED: 12:37 23 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:02 20 February 2013

One of the few surviving pictures showing both nursing and other staff c 1900.

One of the few surviving pictures showing both nursing and other staff c 1900.

Take a sterp back in time where matrons were paid £15 a year and beer was brewed on hospital premises...


Even in these days of constant cuts and shuffling around of our medical services, it was unthinkable to ever imagine the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford closing as a hospital: it was an institution; a rock upon which so many advances in medical treatment and pioneering work in the medical field were anchored. It was the very first place to which my earliest memories take my search back into some conscious awareness of the world into which I would become a miniscule part. I am always interested to hear of the first recognisable memory others have of their childhood - most often it turns out to be of some sense of being frightened and insecure on being faced with a situation or incident, as though one is shocked into a life of feelings and emotions from that moment on.


I cannot recall any time before my ever-lasting memory of waking up and looking up into a face looking down on me, a face half covered with a white mask but with smiling eyes above it and the soft murmuring of my name and the assurance that 'everything is going to be alright now'. I must have been a very young toddler who could not toddle after I had crawled into an open fireplace and burnt my leg so badly that I was rushed to the Radcliffe Infirmary. And to think that somewhere among the thousands of entries there is a record of that admission - just one of the half a million paper records that had accumulated by the 1970s, by which time they were growing at a rate of a metre a day and rapidly stretching beyond the space allocated to them in the basement where they were stored.


Oxfordshire Health Authority is one of the very few NHS bodies to run their own archives, outside of London where some of the famous hospitals have their own schemes. Drawing from the Oxfordshire Health Archives and various other collections, Andrew Moss has marked the closure of the Radcliffe Infirmary by producing a fascinating book charting more than two centuries of its service to the community. The earliest record of the Radcliffe held in the archives is of a plan of drains and cesspits, dating back to 1761 - some nine years before it opened as an Infirmary. The name perpetuates its founder, Dr John Radcliffe, an Oxford graduate who became an eminent medical figure in the seventeenth century, and physician to Mary II, William III and Queen Anne, as well as being a Member of Parliament. The trustees of his considerable estate used their share of the money to build the Radcliffe Camera Library, the Radcliffe Observatory and the Radcliffe Infirmary on Coggins Piece - land given by a fellow trustee, Thomas Rowney.


Sited in open fields, surrounded by farmland, the Radcliffe complex presented a vastly different picture from the one we are familiar with two centuries later with the busy thoroughfare of St Giles passing its front entrance, and extended buildings sprouting out to Walton Street behind it to accommodate the ever increasing number of facilities to meet the medical needs of a modern society. But it is the people of the Radcliffe who made it the place it became - earning the respect and admiration and affection everyone ever associated with it holds most dear.


Quaint and curious as the old records now appear, they give an invaluable and human insight of life of earlier times. Staff and patients had to abide to strict rules of conduct: nurses were initially regarded more akin to servants and required to clean the wards as part of their duties; patients caught swearing or 'smoaking' could be turned out, and the matron, on a salary of 15 a year (with a gratuity 'if she behaves well') had more the responsibilities of a housekeeper than a head of a medical department. Thrift and economy were the keystone upon which the charity founded hospital was run, the accounts being open to scrutiny by the governing body. In 1908 the Ladies' Linen League was formed. Records show that some 10,000 items were in the wash each week to cope with 2,178 patients that year. Bed sheets that were beyond repair were made into smaller ones for the children's ward, or used as cleaning rags. Beer was brewed on the premises until 1853 and formed part of the approved diet - along with water gruel or milk pottage, according to the patients' condition.


Famed for leading the world in many fields of medical discoveries and innovations, the Radcliffe Infirmary was the birthplace for numerous breakthroughs in medicine and treatments, the most significant and widely used now being the use of penicillin, which was first tested on a patient in 1941 - the same year in which the Radcliffe opened the first accident service in Britain. The first Professor of Anaesthetics in Europe was appointed when William Morris, Lord Nuffield, made one of his famous benefactions, despite Oxford University's initial scepticism of the value of anaesthetics, considering it to be below scholarly attention and more a craft for medical artisans who liked gadgets! The first Nuffield Professor of Surgery at Oxford, who had been called to the bedside of Lawrence of Arabia after his fatal motorcycle accident, spearheaded the move to the eventual compulsory wearing of crash helmets. The establishment of an obstetric flying squad, which saved the lives of some 2,000 mothers in crisis during childbirth over a period of thirty-five years was yet another of the hospital's great achievements. Plastic surgery, dermatology, neurosciences and radiology are among the headings in a whole catalogue of pioneering work developed at the Radcliffe to lead the world as catalyst of medical research and studies.


Acknowledgement is also made in the book to the individuals and groups who kept the hospital running and coping with the immense demands made in all kinds of fields: the head porter who never had a complete Christmas at home during his thirty-seven years at the Radcliffe; the three generations of a family who served the hospital service from engineering maintenance to official photographer; the record-keepers and administration staff, representatives of the League of Friends and other volunteers and fund-raisers - all take their rightful place in the order of dedication and commitment and skill in their own right, along with the scientific and nursing achievements and benefactors.


There are also some delightful pictures of some of the fun and frolics that leavened the serious side of hospital life and purpose - a formal portrait of the squint-eyed surgeon; nurses doing their version of the Brighton Run in a Bedstead Flyer jalopy, concocted from a ward bed; celebrating historic milestones in the Radcliffe's history, and in 1970 to mark the hospital's bicentenary, the symbolic planting of a tree from a seed of a tree in Kos, under which Hippocrates was said to have administered. Using some of her experiences as a nurse at the Radcliffe in the early 1930s, Mary Challans wrote her novel, Purposes of Love, under the pseudonym Mary Renault, reviewed at the time as 'one of the frankest and more intimate love stories of recent years'. It was at the time that the matron had chocks screwed to the windows of the nurses' home to that they opened only far enough to let in some air!


No doubt, there are many tales to be told of 'my time at the Radcliffe' by the many thousands who, for one reason or another, hold a special place in their heart for the 'old Infirmary' which closed its doors on another chapter in its history a year ago. Now, it is due to start a new life as an academic campus of Oxford University. The distinctive eighteenth century buildings will remain, and the Observatory will become a more prominent landmark as the vista is opened up, so, although in a different role, the Radcliffe will still stand as an important part of our heritage.

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