The origins of Imperial’s Faculty of Medicine

Reflections on the historic institutions that built Medicine at Imperial College London

Celebrating 25 years. Faculty of Medicine 1997-2022

Anne Barrett

College Archivist & Corporate Records Manager

Boxes from the archives at Imperial College London

The medical schools which came together to form Imperial College School of Medicine each have long and distinguished histories. Their stories vary, but their shared themes are the intimacy of medical training, the close relationship between the medical school and its teaching hospital and the passion for supporting all-round excellence in education, research, clinical innovation and in broad contribution to arts and sports.

As they altered with changing times, and as official standards of training came into effect, the different requirements could not always be met by any one institution. Financial, political, and geographical health care requirements added to the need for mergers, hence their various amalgamations and finally their joining together to form Imperial College School of Medicine in 1997.  

In 2022, our Faculty of Medicine aims to foster the most effective academic environments possible, across all our campuses. Alongside our NHS partners, we shall enable and support the continued evolution of Imperial as an international powerhouse of medical education, research and innovation.

Anne Barrett

Westminster Hospital Medical School

Sketch of the new hospital at Broad Sanctuary

Training in medicine first emerged at Westminster in 1734 after Mr Henry Hoare and three friends declared that the Westminster Hospital (established 1719) should “provide poor sick people...with necessary food and physic during illness”.  George Guthrie, an ex-military surgeon, formally founded the school in 1834 with a new site established opposite the great Westminster Abbey. This opened at a cost of £40,000 and was the first subscription hospital created in London. Initial students were referred to as ‘cubs’ with three cubs assigned to each staff surgeon and numbers slowly increased over the following years. From 1854, the school continued to advance, adding a histology lab in 1874 and enlarging the chemistry labs in 1878. As expansion continued, a new building in Caxton Street was opened in 1885, financed by the hospital, the lecturers, the City of London and subscriptions.

Among the notable alumni, John Snow was one of the most outstanding, he attended the Westminster Medical school, 1837-1838. A pioneer in anaesthetics, and known as the founder of epidemiology, he made this name for himself through his actions in the Broad Street Pump Cholera outbreak of 1854, proving that impure water was to blame, not the miasma theory of airborne particles. His use of statistical mapping was innovative.  He influenced public health work and improved sanitation facilities in the mid-19th century.

During both World Wars, Westminster Hospital remained operational, but student numbers fell dangerously low. In 1914, the medical school was taken over by the army in order to train pathologists for the war effort. During the Blitz it survived several bomb attacks and played an important role as a casualty clearing station and a major accident unit.

The darkest days of the Blitz produced much camaraderie among the students and staff, and it was here where one of its most loved traditions began: the Shrove Tuesday Final Year Dinner. On Shrove Tuesday 1940, Chris Hildyard – the Hospital Chaplain – arranged a dinner to raise the spirits of trainees working there. He invited a guest of honour, Sir Stanley Woodwark whose witty speech was left written on the tablecloth as well as his drawn caricature. All present signed it, it was cut out and framed, and since then the Shrove Tuesday Final Year Dinner has been a feature of the hospital and school right up to the present time.

Westminster Hospital has had several different locations over its 275 years of operation, increasing its student body from 60 to 75 in 1966. As it expanded, the Westminster Medical School merged with local rivals Charing Cross Medical School and by 1992 it was proposed that London’s undergraduate medical schools should come within a college of the university, resulting in Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School becoming part of Imperial College London in August 1997.

Portrait of George Guthrie
A surgical operation being performed, circa 1900
Mr George Henderson Macnab, guest speaker at the 1964 dinner, drawn by (then medical student) Mr Neil Weir, OBE
two men playing rugby at the cup final match, 1974
A black and white photo of a group of male medical students eaving for the liberated Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in Germany, 20 April 1945

The party of medical students leaving for the liberated Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in Germany, 20 April 1945 (Image: Chelsea and Westminster Hospital)

A group of firefighters, waiting for treatment at Westminster Hospital after sustaining injuries during the Blitz, May 1942. (Image: Chelsea and Westminster Hospital)

A group of firefighters, waiting for treatment at Westminster Hospital after sustaining injuries during the Blitz, May 1942. (Image: Chelsea and Westminster Hospital)

Nurses carol singing on the wards (Image: Chelsea and Westminster Hospital)

Nurses carol singing on the wards (Image: Chelsea and Westminster Hospital)

A black and white photo of a group of male medical students eaving for the liberated Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in Germany, 20 April 1945

The party of medical students leaving for the liberated Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in Germany, 20 April 1945 (Image: Chelsea and Westminster Hospital)

A group of firefighters, waiting for treatment at Westminster Hospital after sustaining injuries during the Blitz, May 1942. (Image: Chelsea and Westminster Hospital)

A group of firefighters, waiting for treatment at Westminster Hospital after sustaining injuries during the Blitz, May 1942. (Image: Chelsea and Westminster Hospital)

Nurses carol singing on the wards (Image: Chelsea and Westminster Hospital)

Nurses carol singing on the wards (Image: Chelsea and Westminster Hospital)

Dr Robert Phillips

Robert Phillips is a retired Clinical Oncologist and Westminster Hospital Medical School alumnus. He was joint Founder and President with the late, great Professor Robin Touquet, of Imperial Medicals RFC.

Listen to Dr Phillips' recollections of life at Westminster below.

"Medicine is a way of life"

Dr. Robert Phillips

Charing Cross Hospital Medical School

sketch of Charing Cross

As one of London’s most important medical and teaching institutions, Charing Cross Hospital Medical School was founded by Dr Benjamin Golding in October 1818. The idea for the medical school came after a meeting was held at Golding's home to discuss setting up a charitable institution to be known as the West London Infirmary, located near the Strand in Charing Cross. In 1823 the institution was established in Villiers Street with accommodation for twelve beds, and in 1827 became known as Charing Cross Hospital. Golding intended that the hospital would be used to train students on a formalised basis, offering tuition in every branch of medical study and “to supply the want of a university, so far as medical education is concerned”.

After a period of expansion in 1866 and a major rebuild in 1877 the hospital had doubled in size and in 1881 a separate medical school was created in Chandos Place. Once the decision to admit female medical students was taken during the First World War, Edith (later Baroness) Summerskill enrolled to the school and later became Labour M.P. for Fulham in 1938.

It was clear by the 1930s that Charing Cross Hospital needed larger premises, but it wasn’t until 1957 that the Ministry of Health proposed a link with Fulham and West London Hospitals, with a plan to rebuild on the site of the Fulham Hospital. The Charing Cross Hospital and its medical school moved from Covent Garden into the new buildings on the Fulham Palace Road in 1973.

On 9 June 1976 Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, as Chancellor of the University of London, opened the Reynolds Building - a new medical school building named after the Dean, Dr Seymour Reynolds. The new medical school then saw a greater intake of students, rising from 46 to 120. Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School became part of Imperial College London in August 1997 and Charing Cross Hospital celebrated its 200th birthday in 2018. To mark the occasion, the Imperial Health Charity created the Anniversary Garden as an outdoor space for patients with dementia and neurological conditions being cared for at the hospital.

Staff at Charing Cross Hospital in 1906
Two mean driving a car with crowds in the background
The last patient at Charing Cross
Men playing a United Hospitals Rugby Cup match in 1995

Susan Hartman

Susan Hartman held the position of Assistant Secretary to the School of Medicine, based at the Charing Cross Campus. Susan began working for the college in 1969.

Listen to Susan sharing her memories below.

"The small schools had an ability to see people"

Susan Hartman

St Mary’s Hospital Medical School

colour mural of men playing rugby

St Mary’s Hospital opened in Paddington with one hundred and fifty beds on 13 June 1851, founded by Samuel Armstrong Lane, a surgeon who had completed his early studies at St Georges Hospital.  St Mary’s Hospital Medical School opened a few years later in 1854 and was officially recognised by the University of London in 1900, with the number of students rising to 40.

The distinguished history of St Mary’s Hospital Medical School has often been characterised by a great number of famous teachers, researchers and administrators. One notable and innovative Dean, 1920-1945, Lord Moran (Charles McMoran Wilson) was also Winston Churchill’s personal physician 1940-1965.

The school has a long tradition of contributing to music, arts and sport – particularly rugby and athletics. Among the notable alumni was Sir Roger Gilbert Bannister, a student at St Mary's from 1967 to 1973 who was the first ever athlete to run a mile in under four minutes in 1954. Bannister trained at the track at Paddington Recreation Ground in Maida Vale while training as a medical student. In March 2004, a lecture theatre at St Mary’s was named after Bannister and on display is the stopwatch that was used to time the race, stopped at 3’:59’’.

 Others who worked at St Mary’s included Sir Almroth Edward Wright who came to St. Mary's in 1912 as Director of the Inoculation Department and later the Wright Fleming Institute until 1946. An international pioneer of bacterial vaccines, he developed the “anti-typhoid fever” (Salmonella typhi) inoculation used to great effect in allied troops in WWI; his bacteriological work on the management of wounds was also recognised as correct and innovative. Sir Alexander Fleming, working in Wright’s lab, discovered penicillin in 1928 and was awarded the Nobel Prize for this discovery together with Howard Florey and Sir Ernst Chain (a biochemist and later Head of the Biochemistry Department at Imperial College) of the William Dunn School of Pathology Oxford, who developed penicillin from a laboratory observation to its transformative therapeutic use.

 Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother had a long association with St Mary’s and in 1931 laid the foundation stone of the new medical school on Norfolk Place; fifty-two years later she also laid the foundation stone of the new QEQM wing of St Mary’s hospital, named in her honour. In August 1988, St Marys Hospital Medical School became the fourth constituent college to merge with Imperial College London.

St Mary's Hospital Medical School lecture theatre in 1903
Portrain of Roger Bannister
St Mary's medical school library

Prof Peter Sever

Professor Sever was a Cambridge graduate who completed his clinical training at St Mary's.

Listen to Prof Sever’s reflections below.

“It was like being a member of a social club”

Professor Peter Sever

National Heart and Lung Institute

First Cardiac Medicine Department, based in 50 Wimpole St, in the 1980’s

First Cardiac Medicine Department, based in 50 Wimpole St, in the 1980’s

First Cardiac Medicine Department, based in 50 Wimpole St, in the 1980’s

The National Heart and Lung Institute began in the mid-nineteenth century with the rise of varying institutions including the London Chest Hospital, the National Heart Hospital, The Brompton Hospital, The Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest, The Institute of Cardiology, the Institute of Diseases of the Chest and The Brompton Hospital Medical School. Philip Rose, founder of The Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest, placed significant importance on training and research at postgraduate level and for the first-time formal programmes of postgraduate training were introduced. 

 From May 1843 students were permitted on the wards and a course of thirteen lectures was given by the first visiting physician, Theophilus Thompson, in 1851. By 1857, the University of London recognised certificates of attendance for study at the Brampton and regular teaching with a series of lectures and demonstrations began in the 1870s.

 In 1972 the Institute of Cardiology and the Institute of Diseases of the Chest merged to form the Cardiothoracic Institute based at the Royal Brompton Hospital under the leadership of Dr Joe Smart. Dame Margaret Turner-Warwick was head and dean of the Cardiothoracic Institute from 1984, which then became the National Heart and Lung Institute. After a very distinguished career, she retired from this post in 1987 and was then elected as the first-ever female president (1989-1992) of the Royal College of Physicians in London in its 500-year history. 1988 HRH Anne, the Princess Royal, in her capacity as Chancellor of the University of London, opened the new premises at the former St. Wilfrid’s Convent in Dovehouse Street, off the Fulham Road. with Sir Malcolm Green as the first head.

In 1997 the National Heart and Lung Institute became part of Imperial College London's newly formed Faculty of Medicine and is now one of the largest departments in the world undertaking heart, lung and vascular research.

A woman using a piece of equipment at the Respiratory physiology laboratory
Lung Specimens
Dame Margaret Turner-Warwick

Prof Sian Harding

Sian Harding is Emeritus Professor of Cardiac Pharmacology and one of the longest-serving members of staff at the NHLI.

Listen to Prof Harding's reflections below.

“Understanding the failing heart has been our main contribution”

Portrait of Sian Harding

The Royal Postgraduate Medical School

A corridor with painted figures of men and women in formal clothes on the wall

The Royal Postgraduate Medical School was based at the Hammersmith Hospital and was opened as a School of the University of London by King George V in 1935.  It was a pioneering institution of postgraduate clinical teaching and research, brought into being under the recommendations of the Athlone Report of 1921 on the development of postgraduate medical education.

Originally called the British Postgraduate Medical School, it became part of the British Postgraduate Medical Foundation in 1947. It was known as the Postgraduate Medical School of London until 1974, when it became independent again with a new charter and was titled the Royal Postgraduate Medical School. Reflecting the role of the RPMS in international postgraduate training in medicine, the Commonwealth Building was opened by HM the Queen Elizabeth II in 1966. Among many notable alumni, Sir John McMichael, Professor of Medicine at the RPMS (1946-66) pioneered cardiac catheterisation, Sir John Dacie established academic haematology and Dame Sheila Sherlock revolutionised liver disease through developing percutaneous liver biopsy. 
The RPMS has always enjoyed a very close relationship with the Medical Research Council. The UK’s first cyclotron was built at the Hammersmith by the MRC in order to develop radio-tracers for imaging and diagnostics. The MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences (LMS, formerly the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre) was established in 1994, as a discovery biology institute embedded within a clinical campus.    
The RPMS was unique in the UK due to that fact that senior academic staff of the school provided both NHS consultant services and clinical leadership as well as academic leadership for the NHS Hammersmith Hospital. This helped it to develop an international reputation for the application of scientific research to the investigation and treatment of clinical problems, with a particular focus on the heart and kidneys, and in surgical research with a focus on endocrine surgery. In 2002, the Hammersmith Hospital was merged with Charing Cross Hospital, permanently changing the relationship of the NHS with the RPMS.  It was also unique in setting up its own housing association to build accommodation for students, many of whom come from overseas with their families. The Royal Postgraduate Medical School, alongside the Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, merged with Imperial College on 1 August 1997.

A man in a workshop surrounded by equipment
Three nurses talking in a group
One woman helping another woman use an arm measure
Three people sitting at a bar having a drink

Prof Liz Lightstone

Liz Lightstone is Professor of Renal Medicine and Consul (Clinical) for the Faculty of Medicine.  She undertook her formal renal training at Hammersmith Hospital as registrar and senior registrar, interrupted by doing a PhD in Immunology at UCL and followed by an MRC Clinician Scientist Fellowship at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School. 

Listen to some of Prof Lightstone’s memories below.

There was a sense you could learn from every patient”

Prof Liz Lightstone

Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology

Hammersmith Hospital

The Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology was formed in October 1948 and from its inception contributed to the education of obstetricians in London and internationally with its programme of courses, lectures and symposia. Established by the amalgamation of the Professorial Unit on Obstetrics and Gynaecology in the Royal Postgraduate Medical School at the Hammersmith and the research and teaching facilities at Queen Charlotte's Maternity Hospital and Chelsea Hospital for Women, it joined the British Postgraduate Medical Federation in July 1949.
In 1986, the Institute merged with the Royal Postgraduate Medical School and moved entirely to the Hammersmith Hospital Campus in 1998. An integral part of the work from the Institute was the research conducted into antenatal care, especially measurement of foetal blood pH, the identification of foetus at risk and rhesus incompatibility, internationally important topics in obstetrics not previously understood.

The building of Queen Charlotte's and Chelsea Hospital

Prof Phillip Bennett

Phillip Bennett is Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and Director of the Institute for Reproductive and Developmental Biology at the College. He became a member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 1988 and a fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 2000.

Listen to Prof Bennett reflect below.

“The ethos was completely different to what I had experienced elsewhere”

Prof Phillip Bennett


Prof Jonathan Weber
Dean of the Faculty of Medicine

In 2022, Imperial’s Faculty and School of Medicine are thriving. The national Research Excellence Framework (REF2021) exercise has showcased the high quality and impact of our research; Imperial has a greater proportion of world-leading research than any other UK university. Our medical students are the most satisfied of any London medical school, as determined by this year’s National Student Survey. Through deep NHS partnerships such as our NIHR Imperial Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) we develop the drugs, devices and diagnostics to prevent diseases and improve on current treatments.
Our success is drawn in no small measure from the legacy and ongoing impacts of the historic organisations that are celebrated here. Each school and institute brought its own culture and distinctive contribution to the development of academic medicine in west London, as recalled by the contributors to this Jubilee feature.  Coming together was not without challenges; firstly in combining the three undergraduate medical schools with the post-graduate institutes and secondly, in integrating medicine into Imperial College of Science and Technology (and vice versa). This has been a long road, starting even before the main merger with the joining of St Mary’s with Imperial in 1988, and continuing to this day.  It has taken time to discover our individual and collective strengths and understand how and where to apply them.  Our present position is a credit to all who have worked, studied and partnered with us along the way. 
At 25 years old, today’s Faculty of Medicine feels a vibrant and collaborative organisation. Our broadened scale and strength have combined with our institutional inheritance of close NHS partnerships, boldness of aspiration, inspiring academic environments and valued mentorships to create outstanding opportunities for discovery science and truly global impacts.  Our size has inevitably weakened the intimate experience of, for example, the old Westminster Medical School with 50 students a year (we are teaching a cohort of nearly 400 medical students this year). What we have gained through scale is financial stability, the ability to innovate and the agility to respond to external events. We have nurtured the arising science and partnership opportunities through the very skills of collaboration that we developed together through our interaction and evolution over the last quarter century. This has driven the creation of new fora and programmes which both sow and reap the benefits of this broad and bold community: from the launch of the UK’s first Academic Health Science Centre in 2007, leveraging the benefits of academic medicine across our local populations, to the impacts on health policy, international healthcare and disease prevention delivered through creation of our School of Public Health; from our international partnering to create an innovative medical curriculum geared to the needs of Singapore, to the multi-faceted and internationally recognised clinical academic response from our Faculty to combatting the Covid-19 pandemic.
 Over the next quarter century, we aim to maintain our global status in research, education and in novel contributions to the clinic. To do this will need continued recruitment and retention of the best academics, researchers and educationalists and outstanding training for the next generation of scientists and clinicians to the very highest standards. To remain competitive we shall need to continue to invest in our people, infrastructure and administration. To continue our level of impact we must push ourselves to consistently embrace challenge, diversity, partnership and collaboration, and we must act to enable all members of our Faculty to feel seen and supported in the delivery of their outstanding work, wherever they are contributing to our mission.
In this jubilee year, and beyond, our aim is to honour the heritage of our historic institutions, celebrate the impact of our achievements of the past 25 years, and pass this shared legacy on - nurtured and enriched.  There is much to be proud of in the achievements of the staff, students and partners that have built this Faculty: my hope for the next 25 years is that we can foster and share a sense of pride in belonging to Medicine here at Imperial that will be felt as fully and fondly as was felt within our historical schools.  Ultimately, our Faculty’s legacy will be measured by the degree to which we reflect, respond to and sustain both the community that delivers our mission and the society we endeavour to serve.

Professor Jonathan Weber
Dean of Imperial’s Faculty of Medicine

Two students working in a science lab
A team of scientists
A teacher speaking to a group of science students
A group of students at graduation