This week we discover what life was like as a patient and nurse at Worcester (General, later Royal) Infirmary, learn a few new medical terms and hear about the infirmary ghosts.
Life as a patient in the past wasn’t quite what it is today.
In order to gain access to medical treatment, individuals had to be recommended by subscribers, who were local businessmen or landowners. Recommendations were limited to one inpatient and one outpatient per year for every guinea donated.
Access was limited in other ways: those under seven were only allowed in for major surgery, while pregnant women, the mentally ill or those patients with sexually transmitted or contagious diseases were forbidden entry. The dying were also not encouraged to visit as rules focused on admitting those who could be cured.
In the early days of the infirmary, patients who were fit enough, were expected to assist staff with chores on a daily basis.
Hospital Diet in the Nineteenth Century (per day)
- 16 oz bread
- 5 oz meat
- 12 oz potatoes
- two pints of beer
- 7 oz butter (per week)
Small beer (weaker beer with less alcohol) was drunk more than water until disease-causing impurities in water were reduced.
In 1854 the weekly board voted to ration nurses’ beer to three pints per day.
In 1861 it was decided that boys under fourteen would only get half a pint per day; and children under eight, milk only.
Heating, Lighting and Washing
Washing Facilities: a cold bath was available from 1772 onwards, and in later years, members of the public could use the facilities for a small fee.
The cold was a constant concern for patients and staff and additional freestanding furnaces were added to wards and the main entrance in particularly cold weather. Gas lighting and heating was installed in 1867, and electric lights in the operating theatre in the 1890s.
Before 1850, nurses didn’t have to be formally trained and hospitals would employ them so long as they could read a medicine bottle. Nurses were mostly drawn from the working classes and before Mulberry House was built, sometimes had to sleep in the wards. Formal training began in the 1880s, reforms being led by Florence Nightingale, and these reforms led to new ranks of nurses. The first, and then the second world war, with their high numbers of injured soldiers, emphasised the importance of state-led training.
Some terms, once familiar, are less so today. Here are some examples:
- Ague: a severe fever with recurring chills, shaking and sweating
- Chincough: whooping or a dry persistent cough
- Apoplexy: sudden loss of sensation and movement due to a loss of blood to the brain because of a stroke
- Phthisis: often refers to TB but could be used for other lung or throat conditions
Many of the terms had a Latin or Greek origin because much of Western medicine originated around ancient Greek and Roman medical texts.
Like many old buildings the infirmary was reputed to be haunted. There have been numerous sightings of the ubiquitous grey lady, around the Entrance Hall, Board Room and Jenny Lind Chapel. One, quite recent, was at a University of Worcester city campus open day, when a woman, clearing away afternoon tea in the Board Room around 5.30 pm, saw a ghostly figure disappear through a closed door into the Jenny Lind Chapel.
Another ghost was Tom Bates (the Elder), a surgeon at the infirmary who retired in 1909. After war broke out, Bates took on the role of surgeon again in a voluntary capacity, but caught influenza in April 1916, and died after a week-long struggle. He was said to roam the Bates Medical and Bates Surgical corridors, keeping a watchful eye on the children, even though these were only built after the second world war, in memory of his son, Tom, also a surgeon.
Coming Next: some interesting Worcester Infirmary locations and all about Powick Asylum. What were the patients really like?
Article written by Ellie Stevenson, author.
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- The Infirmary [museum], University of Worcester, Castle St, Worcester [notes from]
- University of Worcester. The History of the Charles Hastings Building, 2011.
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