The University of Worcester’s City Campus, a Georgian Grade II listed building, was once Worcester Royal Infirmary (RVI), built to solve a shortage of beds at the previous infirmary in Silver Street. The new hospital (1771) was originally known as Worcester General Infirmary (WGI) but was granted Royal status in 1932.
A wealth of stories surrounds this hospital and those who want can find out more at the two museums, one in the former infirmary itself, and the other at the George Marshall Medical Museum. See below for more details. In the meantime, here are just a few tasters.
The Cutting Edge
When Worcester General Infirmary opened, anaesthetics and antiseptics hadn’t been discovered. Until the middle of the 19th century, operations were undertaken on a wooden table with assistants and straps to hold down fully conscious patients. Around half of surgical cases ended in death from gangrene or other infections, with some also dying on the operating table from shock or blood loss. Anaesthetics were discovered in the 1840s, antiseptics in the 1860s (although these weren’t immediately adopted) and blood transfusions weren’t fully successful until the turn of that century.
Sir Charles Hastings
The Provincial Medical and Surgical Association (later to become the British Medical Association) held its very first meeting at the WGI in 1832. Charles Hastings presided over the meeting and was a prominent member of the group which formed the association. Such associations were a means of professional self-regulation.
Hastings was one of 15 children, he trained in Edinburgh and was given the post of House Surgeon at the WGI at just 18. He was a physician at the infirmary for 35 years.
George Marshall was a local GP and surgeon who came to Worcester in 1931 and became a consultant surgeon to the infirmary at the start of the NHS in 1948. He treated the residents of Worcestershire for decades.
By his retirement, Marshall had collected almost 10,000 medical artefacts, many of which came from the infirmary.
Martha Stewart was the first female surgeon at the infirmary and was appointed in 1915 (note that this was during the first world war). She was only in post for five months, being asked to leave almost as soon as she arrived, but why exactly, remains a mystery.
Death and Dissection
Medical education of the 18th and early 19th centuries was limited by the lack of bodies available for dissection. The only legitimate source of anatomical specimens was executed prisoners, and in the 19th century the local paper tells of bodies being removed from the gaol and taken to the infirmary.
In 1813, a gaol was built opposite the infirmary and in order to make such transfers easier, a tunnel was supposedly built under Castle Street, connecting the two buildings.
In the current University’s plant room, a bricked up arch could mark the site of the tunnel in question, and during redevelopment, archaeologists took away several bricks beneath the arch and found only – a human tooth.
Also during the redevelopment, two pits were discovered, containing parts of human skeletons. Some of these may have been amputated and some had been turned into teaching models. The pits predate the 1860s.
In the early 19th century, medics began to petition for access to enough bodies to suit requirements and Charles Hastings led this campaign from Worcester. In 1832, an Anatomy Act was passed, allowing the medical establishment to dissect the bodies of unclaimed paupers as well as criminals.
The First World War
During WWI the infirmary offered two wards to the War Office for soldiers. The first wounded soldiers arrived in October 1914 and totalled 50 Belgians and 13 British.
Even in hospital, some Christmas traditions existed. Each ward competed to be the best decorated, putting up their own themed decorations. Surgeons used surgical knives to carve the meat.
Next: Life as a Patient, Nursing Care, and do you know your medical terms? And maybe the odd ghost or two…
Article written by Ellie Stevenson, author.
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- Embleton, B. Sir Charles Hastings Window, Worcester Cathedral, 2007
- The Infirmary [museum], University of Worcester, Castle St, Worcester [notes from]
- University of Worcester. The History of the Charles Hastings Building, 2011.