Take a look back at some of the key stories from 300 years of the world’s first hospital funded by charitable giving.
Imperial is celebrating this tercentenary in celebration of the legacy of Westminster Medical School, which after a series of mergers formed part of Imperial College School of Medicine in 1997. Westminster Hospital grew and became Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in 1993, where it can now be found on Fulham Road.
1719 – In the beginning
Westminster Hospital owes its foundation to charity and was the first of a new wave of voluntary hospitals established in the 18th century. Mr Henry Hoare and three friends founded the original Westminster Hospital in 1719, declaring that the hospital should ‘provide poor sick people...with necessary food and physic during illness'. Mr Henry Hoare contributed the first charitable donation of £10. Ahead of the times, the hospital also aimed to help sick prisoners and foreigners.
1827 – Medical duel
A scandal broke out in 1827 when a feud emerged between rival surgeons. George Guthrie and Charles Fergusson Forbes had a disagreement on the running of the Westminster Eye Infirmary, so Forbes challenged him to a duel. Guthrie refused, but one of his pupils, Hale Thompson, took up the offer instead. In a final showdown, Thompson and Forbes faced each other with pistols on Clapham Common. They both emerged unscathed. The incident was reported in the January 1828 edition of The London Medical Gazette.
1831 – The first Westminster Hospital new build
Westminster Hospital had several different locations over its 275 years of operation before closing in 1992 to reopen as the new Chelsea and Westminster. In 1831, the hospital outgrew its current location and a new site opposite the west door of the great Westminster Abbey was found. A new and spacious building was completed and opened in 1834 at a cost of £40,000 – the first subscription hospital erected in London. The new hospital was described as a dignified building in the centre of Westminster and the site was ‘at the heart of the busy world itself’.
1847 – Pioneering surgery
Throughout its history, the hospital had a number of distinguished medical students and staff including Hale Thompson who in 1847 performed the first operation under general anaesthetic at the hospital. The renowned physician John Snow who was also a pioneer in the field of anaesthetics did one-year of clinical practice at Westminster Hospital. Snow, best known for his discovery in the 1854 cholera epidemic that the disease was waterborne, applied to work at Westminster later in life, but his application was rejected.
The 1920s – Women at Westminster
Westminster Hospital was slightly behind the times in providing equal opportunities to women in medicine. Until 1916, the middle of World War I, women were still barred from the Medical School; it was only the loss of a substantial portion of the male population to the war effort which prompted the hospital to allow entry to women in 1916. This stopped between 1928 and 1945, beginning again in 1946.
One medical student who faced a barrier to her ambitions at Westminster Hospital was Kathleen Chevassut. She was a talented student at the Medical School in 1922, but did not qualify as a physician for unknown reasons so eventually turned to biomedical research. Kathleen published research in the Lancet in 1930 on the origin of multiple sclerosis but sadly did not receive recognition until later in life.
1939 - 1945 – Westminster during the Blitz
The hospital remained operational throughout both World Wars, including several bombing attacks during the Blitz with miraculously no fatalities. It played an important role as a casualty clearing station and a major accident unit in the early days of the Blitz.
The darkest days of the Blitz produced much camaraderie between the medical staff, and on Shrove Tuesday 1940, Chris Hildyard – the Hospital Chaplain – arranged a dinner in the Refectory and invited a guest of honour, Sir Stanley Woodwark. His witty and exciting 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.
1945 – Unsung war heroes
The medical school also played a part in war efforts. In 1945 a group of 11 Westminster medical students volunteered to work in Holland for famine relief but were suddenly diverted to Bergen-Belsen to provide front-line relief after its liberation by the Allies. These students undertook heroic work in clearing the huts and attempting to treat many sick and dying patients.
1951 – Secret royal surgery
In 1951 HM King George VI was diagnosed with lung cancer. An operation to remove the left lung was undertaken by Clement Price-Thomas, who was one of the pioneers of thoracic surgery in London. However, he was persuaded to undertake the procedure in an operating room to be set up in Buckingham Palace. In the days before the operation the surgical staff of Westminster Hospital were puzzled to find certain instruments missing without explanation. Even an operating theatre table went missing from their theatres on the seventh floor.
1973 – The first unrelated bone marrow transplant
In 1973, Simon Bostic was the first patient to successfully receive a bone marrow transplant from an unrelated donor, at the Westminster Children's Hospital. The hunt for a bone marrow donor to save his life inspired Anthony Nolan's mother, Shirley, to start a bone marrow register as Anthony had a rare blood condition. The Anthony Nolan Bone Marrow Register was established in Westminster Children's Hospital, where Anthony was also a patient. Professor Joseph Graeme Humble was a pioneering contributor to the success of the first marrow transplantation.
1984 – 150 years of medical education
Medical education initially emerged at Westminster in 1734 when there was the first mention of ‘cubs’, as these initial students were called. At first, three cubs were allowed to each staff surgeon, and the numbers slowly increased. George Guthrie formally founded the school in 1834.
1905 saw the end of pre-clinical subjects at Westminster, and the students took this part of their training to King’s College. The school was taken over by the army in 1914 to train pathologists for the war effort. Student numbers fell dangerously low and it was due to the efforts of the Dean, Sir Stanley Woodwark, that student numbers began to pick up.
Sport was a big part of life at Westminster Medical School and alumni recall fond memories of time spent at Cobham sports ground. In 1984 Westminster Medical School merged with Charing Cross Medical School. In 1992, the Tomlinson Report proposed that, where possible, London’s undergraduate medical school should come within a multi-faculty college of the university. This resulted in Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School becoming part of Imperial College London in August 1997.
Some of this text has been adapted from 'A Brief History of Westminster Hospital Tercentenary 1719–2019' by Professor Paul Aichroth.
Do you have any memories of studying or working at Westminster Hospital? Please share them below.
Article text (excluding photos or graphics) © Imperial College London.
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