How did we get here? A journey through North Staffs medical history

No Comments »

“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.

Author: NSCC

Leave a Comment