How it all started
“Some of the diseases incident to your poor are local, that is, they are connected with causes inseparable from the nature of their employment. I, in particular, allude here to the indispensable use, in the manufacture of earthen ware, of certain minerals, which are known to exert a virulent action on the human body and ultimately to produce obstinate and dangerous disorders.”
So wrote Dr. Francis Hicken Northen in a letter to the Staffordshire Advertiser in 1802. The Newcastle surgeon warned that local people were in dangerously poor health, brought on by their dirty, badly-paid jobs in the pottery industry. Conditions like ‘potters rot’ – caused by inhaling silica dust – and lead poisoning were common. Medical treatment was reserved for the rich. For everyone else, the only choices were ‘old wives’ remedies and self-help books.
Dr Northen was one of a group of doctors who planned to build a clinic for the poor. As well as helping the local population, they hoped a place to meet and discuss their cases would help to improve their medical education. That July a meeting was held at the Swan Inn, Hanley, to consider “establishing a Medical Dispensary, and a Ward for the reception of Fever Patients.”
From Dispensary to Royal Stoke
The Dispensary – which was the first public hospital in North Staffordshire – opened in Etruria in April 1804. Funded in part by the Wedgewood family, it gave sick patients the chance to see an Apothecary for diagnosis and treatment. It also provided vaccination against the dreaded smallpox, thanks to the pioneering work of Dr Edward Jenner. Shortly afterwards the 11-bed House of Recovery was opened for fever patients, followed by facilities to treat general and accident patients.
The hospital continued to expand, due to a steady flow of general illness cases, accidents in the pottery, mining and iron industries and diseases caused by lead and dust. In 1819 it moved to a bigger site in Etruria, close to the Newcastle to Leek road. By this point it employed a small team of support staff, including a matron and nurses, and ran education programmes urging mine and factory owners to improve their safety standards. But thanks to new ideas about infection control, the building surrounded by polluting factories was increasingly seen as unsuitable for patients. It was also at risk of collapse from heavy undermining. Eventually the decision was made to move the infirmary to Hartshill. The clean, quiet suburb became home in 1869 to the North Staffordshire Royal Infirmary, which later merged with the City General Hospital to form the University Hospital of North Staffordshire – now the Royal Stoke University Hospital.
The new building was a major improvement and conditions were better than ever. But the wards were still dangerous places where the risk of infection was high. Because of this, surgery could only be carried out on the limbs and external parts of the body. Operations on the head, chest and trunk carried a death risk of more than 50% and were only attempted on patients who were already injured. Doctors tried various ways of stopping the spread of infection, including chemical agents designed to kill bacteria. However some of these – like carbolic acid – could be absorbed through wounds and were toxic, often fatally so.
It eventually became clear that the best surgical outcomes took place when the surgeon’s hands, instruments and operating theatre were as clean as possible. This became the basis for asepsis, which we still use today. However during the 1870s and 80s it was realised that there is little point in a clean operation if patients were returned to open wards full of infection and cared for by general nursing staff.
Among the biggest killers of women at this time were ovarian cysts – benign tumours that if left untreated could crush the internal organs and stop breathing. Patients could enjoy a normal lifespan if they were removed, provided they survived the operation, which was often carried out at home with far lower infection rates than on hospital wards. To avoid the deaths caused by what became known as ‘hospitalism,’ North Staffs Infirmary surgeon W.D. Spanton designed the detached Victoria Ward for female surgical patients. Funded by local benefactor Sir Smith Child, the unit had two separate bed spaces, its own staff and a strict no-visitors policy. When it opened in 1882 the death rate for patients dropped overnight from 50% to just 13%.
The North Staffordshire Medical Institute
As scientific knowledge continued to grow, the North Staffordshire Medical Society decided a purpose-built centre was needed to meet the needs of medical education and research. Under the leadership of chairman Sir George Wade, they launched a public appeal in 1959 to raise £100,000 towards the project. It was to include:
- A comprehensive medical library
- Rooms suitable for scientific and clinical meetings
- Facilities for research
- A pathology museum
- Regular post-graduate teaching for doctors, dentists, nurses and people in connected roles
The appeal was an astonishing success and on October 10th, 1961, the North Staffordshire Medical Institute charity was created. Two years later, famous doctor Sir George Pickering laid the foundation stone for the first post-war purpose built postgraduate centre in Britain. When it opened on April 29th, 1965, it set the pattern for other districts all over the UK. Meanwhile, the tireless work of Sir George Wade at the Foundation Committee continued:
1967 £20,000 was raised by public appeal for a renal unit to be sited at the Royal Infirmary
1969 The rapid expansion of the Institute’s activities showed the need for a research laboratory. Another appeal was launched.
1971 The new research unit was opened by Princess Margaret. It would house the bio-medical engineering and medical physics departments.
1977 Another appeal £95,000 for an Industrial and Community Health Research Centre to help improve the health of the local population.
1978 The Industrial and Community Health Research Centre was opened by epidemiology professor Sir Donald Acheson.
1983 New isotope laboratory opened in the research unit thanks to the Friends of the Medical Institute and a donation from North Staffordshire Health Authority.
The Institute Today
Within 20 years, the Institute had become an important facility for medical education and research. Postgraduate medical and dental tutors, GP training services and scientists investigating local industrial and community problems were all housed within the building. But when the City General became a major teaching centre, the library was relocated to the hospital site to join Keele Medical School. The laboratories were taken over by the hospital and much of the medical research work now continues there and at Keele.
The Medical Institute welcomed the new medical school and felt (as their founders did in 1961) that it was important to encourage keen students to the area. Together with the Wellcome Foundation, it now supports the Inspire scholarship scheme designed to give students an eight-week introduction to research during their summer break. It also awards prizes of £100 each to the best-performing medical students each year, thanks to the Bicentennial Fund set up by Dr Alun Davies in 2000.
The loss of revenue from postgraduate teaching meant the Institute had to become independent and seek other sources of income to keep the charity running. It now hires out its purpose-built lecture theatres, meeting and seminar rooms to raise money to continue supporting local research. It also receives income from legacies, donations and members’ subscriptions.