Monday, 10 December 2012

The Oxford Military Hospital, 1939-45

Dear readers

I would like to begin this short blog post by thanking Dr Vanessa Heggie for her helpful comments on my previous post on the origins of military aviation medicine.  She is a teaching associate at the University of Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science, and has recently published a book on the history of sports medicine.  I have taken her comments on board and this has helped me to amend the chapter I am writing on the development of military aviation medicine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Vanessa's bio:  I have also had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Roland Edwards, who worked with the RAF Institute of Aviation Medicine, and is now a PhD student at the University of Manchester, looking into the history of ergonomics.  Thank you very much for your comments so far - I do take them seriously and aim to respond to each one.

I have decided to do a bit of an institutional post this time, which is not exclusive to aviation medicine but features in a chapter on treatment in my thesis on RAF neuropsychiatry.  Many temporary wartime/military hospitals have never been explored but contributed so much to our understanding of modern medicine.  As I am located in Oxford, I thought I would look across Banbury Road to my nearest college neighbour, St Hugh's.  I found a fact file relating to this college, written by Dorothy Quade during my preliminary research, detailing its wartime experiences and I thought I would share it with you all.

St Hugh's is a comparatively young Oxford college, established in 1886 by Elizabeth Wordsworth, a great niece of the famous poet.  She was a champion of women's education, and her aim was to allow poorer women to gain an Oxford education.  It is now co-educational.  Well known alumni include Theresa May MP and Aung San Suu Kyi:

St Hugh's College today.  Photograph courtesy of Michael Coleman: 

Not many people know that St Hugh's was requisitioned and it became a tri-service hospital specialising in head injuries during the Second World War.  I discovered that one of the major RAF neurologists in my research, Sir Charles Symonds, based himself there unofficially throughout the war and this encouraged me to look into this hospital.  The following is mainly descriptive and administrative but I thought I would share it with you.

St Hugh's was an ideal site in which to establish a temporary hospital, as its buildings were relatively new, the oldest being built in 1915, which meant it was accessible and easy to keep clean.  I don't know how many of you are acquainted with the design of traditional Oxford colleges, but they are built on a staircase system - rooms built off the main staircase with no connecting corridors, which would have posed logistical problems within a hospital environment. It was also located near RAF Brize Norton, which meant that cases could be evacuated by air and transferred to St Hugh's or one of the other Oxford hospitals.   The armed forces built temporary brick huts to create wards, treatment rooms, and administrative accommodation within the college grounds.  The hospital was in the capable hands of neurosurgeon Hugh Cairns, who believed that the sooner a head injury was treated, the more likely the patient was to live.  The hospital sent out Mobile Neurosurgical Units, which performed operations on the injured at the front - the patients were then sent back to St Hugh's for further treatment.  During the war, the mortality rate for head injuries had dropped from 50% in the Great War, to a mere 5% - showing how far techniques and developed, and was no doubt influenced by the use of the new wonder drug penicillin.  13,000 tri-service patients were treated at the 300 bed hospital throughout the war.  This figure included not only allies but also prisoners of war.  After the hostilities, some patients participated in on-going studies, which led to the development of new neurosurgical techniques.  Little is known about the patients, as these records remain closed under the Data Protection Act.

I hope you have found this mini post interesting and if you have come across St Hugh's Hospital in your own research, I would love to know what you found out.

Best wishes


1 comment:

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