Expressions of Care; A New Book Has Been Published on the History of Hospitals in Birmingham. Chris Upton Delves into Its Pages

The Birmingham Post (England), August 19, 2010 | Go to article overview

Expressions of Care; A New Book Has Been Published on the History of Hospitals in Birmingham. Chris Upton Delves into Its Pages


Byline: Chris Upton

Birmingham, you may have noticed, has a very big new hospital, and the three giant towers of glass in Edgbaston proclaim the arrival of 21st-century medical care. I'm pleased to say that, as yet, I've had no reason to put it to the test.

What better time, then, for a new book to appear on the history of hospitals in the city ? Health Care in Birmingham. The Birmingham Teaching Hospitals 1779-1939 by Jonathan Reinarz (Boydell Press, 2009, pounds 60) fills a surprising gap in the market. Although there have been individual studies of specific hospitals in recent years - I can remember one on the Children's Hospital and another on the Orthopaedic - no-one had tackled the bigger picture. Indeed, it's been a long time since anyone ventured into the early history of health care in Birmingham. As Director of the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Birmingham, Reinarz is wellqualified to do so.

The opening date, and beginning of the study, is determined by the establishment of the General Hospital in 1779. Reinarz shows that Birmingham was among the last of the major English towns to found such a 'voluntary hospital', relying entirely on charitable support. Bristol had had one for more than 40 years by then.

The reason, I would argue, for Birmingham's tardiness in this respect was that it already had a hospital - or rather, an infirmary attached to the workhouse - and that, in the eyes of many, was perfectly adequate for the time being. Set up in the 1740s and funded out of the rates, the workhouse infirmary in Lichfield Street supplied health care to all who were unable to afford the private alternative.

So, what became one of the great Midland hospitals, the General was not welcomed with open arms by all. There were plenty of charitable causes to support without introducing yet another.

Yet the General Hospital, initially in Summer Lane and later in Steelhouse Lane, soon embedded itself in the life of the town, culturally as well as medically.

About 200 patients were treated in its first three months of operation (and operations). The pounds 2,000 a year it cost to run the hospital was found partly out of donations and sponsorship, and partly from the huge music festivals held every three years in the Town Hall. Without the assistance of Messrs Mendelssohn, Gounod, Elgar and Dvorak, the financial situation might have been very different. As Reinarz shows, the 1830 festival alone raised almost pounds 6,000 for hospital funds, repairs and expansion.

Reinarz also provides a very useful "walk through" the Summer Lane building, an unusual addition to the formal history of the institution.

The funding model set out by the General Hospital became the norm for the other specialist hospitals which followed. Charitable donors, in proportion to the size of their annual contributions, received tickets to give to "deserving" cases. …

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