Skip to content

Medical discoveries in your area

Updated Friday, 26th January 2007

Everywhere in Europe has some sort of medical claim to fame. Open University staff around the country share their local heroes.

This page was published over five years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see our Archive and Deletion Policy

Important discoveries in the history of medicine have tended to occur in the major centres of medical education – in London, Edinburgh, Paris and Berlin. But medical practitioners worked everywhere, and almost every town and city can boast institutions and individuals who played significant roles in medicine within a particular community. Here are a few accounts of places, peoples and practices which shed light on the history of medicine in Britain, written by some of the Open University’s Lecturers. We hope that they inspire you to look out for the History of Medicine near you...

Doctors passing medical equipment during operation Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

The Highlands, Scotland - The Water Cure
Drive north up the motorway into the Highlands and you cannot fail to see as you pass Pitlochry or Dunblane the palatial buildings of a species of big super hotels from the Victorian era called hydros. But what was a hydro? It was nothing to do with hydro-electric power but with hydropathy, a medical enthusiasm of the Victorian period. This drew on a long tradition of water treatments, which involved drinking mineral waters containing iron, copper or sulphur. In hydropathy, unlike the spas, what mattered was not what was in the water, but what was done with the water: baths, showers, massage and a wrapping up for hours in a wet sheet. At the hydros this package was combined with a schedule of exercise, fresh air and a regulated diet, but no alcohol.

Cures were claimed for both physical conditions such as gout and rheumatism, but also mental ills and stress, what the Victorians called ‘brain fever’. Popular with the respectable and the moneyed, it was taken up by people like Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens and Florence Nightingale. Over time its strict regime became diluted; with an emphasis more and more on recreation rather than cure. The last redoubt of the old order, Crieff Hydro acquired a licence to serve alcohol only in the early 1980s. The ranks of the hydros were thinned by dry rot, war and fire, or conversion, yet hydrotherapy is now being rediscovered and promoted. The future of the hydros looks as prosperous as it did when they first came on the scene one hundred and fifty years ago.

Alastair Durie
Open University Associate Lecturer, Scotland

Newcastle, England - The Barber Surgeons’ Hall
The Barber Surgeons' Hall of Newcastle was constructed in the 1640s and was, according to one account a “good neate building” with a “pretty garden”. The building was used for medical teaching. Inside, a round dissection table surrounded by benches was flanked by wired skeletons and bodies. Upstairs was a skin re-stuffed into human shape, which visitors were apparently encouraged to touch.

The Hall was still used in 1829 - when fifty people watched the dissection of the murderess Jane Jameson - but in 1847 it was demolished to make way for a viaduct. On City Road one building – the Gardener's House - survives, where teaching specimens were prepared. By this time there were two Newcastle medical schools and both wanted possession of the Hall’s valuable anatomical exhibits. Not content with a sharp exchange in the medical journal, the Lancet, in 1851 students twice stole specimens, inspiring a satirical “border ballad” -The knichts of St John and the Cross, or the raid o' the auld musee.

Jo Bath
Open University Associate Lecturer, North East England

There’s a good illustration of the building, taken from the top of a certificate awarded to Charles Gibb (after 1834 but before the building was demolished).

Derbyshire, England - Derbyshire General Infirmary

Derbyshire Royal Infirmary Creative commons image Icon Jerry Evans under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
Derbyshire Royal Infirmary

Although Derbyshire is famous for Richard Arkwright’s Cotton Mills, innovations in the realm of medicine were afoot too. William Strutt, another mill owner, brought all his skills to bear on the design and building of the Derbyshire General Infirmary in 1810. No expense was spared! With the help of engineer Charles Sylvester, he included a superb and efficient central heating system.

The infirmary also had baths, laundries and even lavatories made from the most modern wipe-clean materials such as glazed tiles. It stood square and mansion-like, three storeys tall, crowned by a massive figure of Asclepius the Greek god of healing. The hospital was the talk of the town. A German architect spoke of it as ‘the famous infirmary, beautiful, convenient in every respect, with a superb stair case, the treads faced with lead’! You will see not a trace of it now, as it was superseded by a pavilion-style hospital typical of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, for its time, it was unique both in its technology and its concern for the comfort and well-being of poor patients.

Dianne Martin
Open University Associate Lecturer, North East England

Dublin, Ireland - The Cow Pock Institution
Founded in 1804, the curiously-named Dublin Cow Pock Institution was a charity which offered free vaccination against smallpox. Any person who wished to be immunised simply attended one of the open vaccinating sessions. There, a small amount of “lymph”, which contained cowpox virus, would be inserted in a small scratch on their arm. A small, reddish blister would appear at the vaccination site, and the patient would then be immune from smallpox.

The Institution was one of a small number of such vaccination institutions founded within a few years of Edward Jenner’s discovery of vaccination in 1798. Like other eighteenth-century charities, the Institution served a number of groups. The poor got free vaccination and the subscribers who funded its work received the credit. Most importantly medical men got a continuous supply of vaccine. The only reliable source of vaccine was the lesion of a vaccinated patient, and the Institution’s patients were required to return one week after vaccination. Lymph was then extracted from the lesion and sent all over Ireland.

Deborah Brunton
Senior Lecturer in History of Medicine, Open University

Birmingham, England - William Withering
William Withering the ‘discoverer’ of digitalis (a drug derived from foxgloves) was a very astute diagnostician but a poor communicator, described by his own son as ‘little qualified for general social intercourse with the world’. He crossed swords with several members of the Darwin family and these rows give us a view into the competitive world of 18th century medicine. Erasmus Darwin of Lichfield, a famously good communicator, tried to claim cures using digitalis that had been the work of Withering for his own doctor son Charles. Another of Erasmus’ sons, Robert Waring Darwin fell out with Withering over a patient they had both treated and whom Withering cured where Robert had failed.

At a time when a doctor’s income depended on a large and trusting clientele, appropriating a patient, and then curing her was a severe threat to Robert’s reputation. Both men went into print with a furious correspondence that demonstrated Withering’s superior competence, but a positively libellous degree of vituperation on both sides, and, compared to modern medical practice, a startling desire to wash dirty linen in public.

Heather Swanson
Open University Associate Lecturer, West Midlands

Myddfai, Wales - The Recipe Book of the Physicians
The physicians of Myddfai, in Carmarthenshire, were herbalists who were widely renowned for their successful use of folk medicine. The first of a long line of physicians was Rhiwallon who, along with his three sons, was employed by a thirteenth-century Welsh prince. The last of the line was John Jones, a surgeon, who died in 1739. The physicians of Myddfai produced a unique recipe book of their prescriptions, maxims and diagnostic techniques. The book contained material on Welsh medical practice dating back to the tenth century and was gradually added to over time. The final manuscript covers the treatment of complaints from flatulence, toothache, haemorrhoids and bad breath to heart disease, pneumonia and even the prevention of plague. The recipe book is significant for what it tells us of Welsh medical practice in the medieval and early modern periods, and for its inclusion of passages relating to humoral medicine. The original manuscript is held in the British Museum, and a copy is held in Jesus College, Oxford. The only printed version, which includes an English translation, was produced in 1861.

Alan Wilson
Open University Associate Lecturer, Wales

London, England - Astley Paston Cooper
Astley Cooper (1768-1841) was the son of a Norfolk clergyman, who rose to fame and fortune in London through his skill in surgery. He was made a baronet as a reward for removing a cyst from the scalp of King George IV. He was the highest paid practitioner of his generation, reputedly earning over £20,000 per annum at the height of his career.

Cooper’s skill was based on hard work. He was known as a precise and quick operator (crucial for the patient’s survival before anaesthesia and blood transfusions), and his technique was honed in the dissection room. There Cooper acquired an unrivalled knowledge of human anatomy, and practised operations on corpses before performing them on living patients. There was a dark side to Cooper’s life. The plentiful supply of corpses required to maintain his skills were acquired by bodysnatchers – men who robbed graveyards of freshly buried bodies, and sold them to anatomists. To keep up his supply of cadavers, Cooper maintained a close relationship with some of London’s most notorious bodysnatchers. He even supported the families of his regular bodysnatchers when they were sent to prison.

Deborah Brunton
Senior Lecturer in History of Medicine, Open University





Related content (tags)

Copyright information

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?