Thursday, 21 February 2013

A patients’ monument of Victorian Exeter

Some Budleigh residents may remember from many years ago their visits to the old Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital at its Southernhay site in the city centre.

Not that they would remember seeing horses and carriages of course. The above engraving by Exeter artist and photographer Owen Angel (c.1821-1909) dates from 1849 and not even longevity-celebrated Budleigh can boast of having citizens from that time.

An inscription below the engraving tells us that the work was printed by Mr Angel, on the occasion of the Fancy Bazaar in aid of the Funds of the Devon & Exeter Hospital, held on Northernhay, Exeter, on 31 July and 1 August 1849. The ‘Royal’ was added only following the visit by the Duke and Duchess of York in 1899.

Mr Angel’s work appears here because it’s one of the many interesting items on loan from the Devon and Exeter Medical Society which will be on show at Fairlynch’s forthcoming exhibition ‘Sea, Salt and Sponges.’


The connection with Budleigh is that one of the town’s most celebrated residents, the scientist Henry Carter (1813-95), pictured above, was a student at the Devon and Exeter Hospital before he went on in 1835 to study at University College London.  There he was lucky enough to be taught by two of Britain’s leading anatomists, Robert Edmond Grant (1793-1874) and William Sharpey (1802-80), winning prestigious prizes in anatomy during his time in London. 

Like many Victorian scientists who began by studying medicine and ended up in natural history, including Charles Darwin (1809-82), Carter made his name as an internationally-known expert on sponges but would remember his former teachers with deep affection.

It was at the Devon and Exeter Hospital where he first gained his skill in anatomy. The Hospital was in advance of its time, having introduced courses in the subject ten years previously, and had a Dissecting Room which was active in 1827.  This was well before the passing in 1832 of an Anatomy Act introduced into Parliament by Henry Warburton (1784-1858), MP for Dorset and an enthusiastic amateur scientist.


Above: A painting of body snatchers at work on the wall of the Old Crown Inn in the High Street of Penicuik in Midlothian. The inn is about 100 yards from the local parish kirkyard.
That year, the time of the cholera epidemic in Exeter, the Hospital applied for a Licence under the new Act which enabled dissection to be carried out without theft of bodies from burial sites although this doubtless long-established activity probably did continue for a while. The Sidmouth antiquary and artist Peter Orlando Hutchinson (1810-97) records how his father and other medical students at the Hospital were disturbed by soldiers while disinterring an executed criminal in 1796.

The Devon and Exeter Hospital had been at the forefront of those pressing for such legislation to facilitate the teaching of anatomy. Two of its surgeons, Samuel Barnes (1784-1858) and John Haddy James (1788-1869), in a letter addressed to Warburton and dated 19 April 1828, stressed the importance of “an early and accurate acquaintance with anatomy” for their medical pupils and urging a change in the law whereby an ample supply of subjects for study might be made available from “unclaimed bodies of persons dying at the hospital, the workhouse and the gaols.”

The history of the city’s hospital goes back to much earlier times. The Exeter Guild of Barbers was a Livery Company and is noted in the records of the Guildhall. The Barber-Surgeons were first Incorporated by a Grant of King Henry VII in 1487 and their Coat of Arms bears the motto ‘De Praescentia Dei.’

This jar, on display in the Fairlynch exhibition, was used for storing live leeches by 19th century doctors. The European medical leech Hirudo medicinalis as well as some other species, has been used for clinical bloodletting for thousands of years. The use of leeches in medicine dates as far back as 2,500 years ago, when they were used for bloodletting in ancient India.  In the 19th century Barts Hospital in London used 100,000 leeches annually for the procedure.

The use of leeches in modern medicine made its comeback in the 1980s after years of decline, with the advent of microsurgeries, such as plastic and reconstructive surgeries 

Image courtesy of the Devon and Exeter Medical Society

Following the building of a hospital in 1665 an Act of Parliament passed in 1694 led to the planning of another new hospital that was completed in 1718.  The City Hospital on the Southernhay site was founded on 27 August 1741. The Gentleman’s Magazine of that year records the event in its Poetical Essays:

By virtue rais'd, this goodly pile shall last,
Built on a rock, nor fear the northern blast;
Let parties rage, and adverse storms arise,
Firm on its base, its head shall touch the skies.
Ages to come the pious work shall bless
And curse that name whose envy made it less.

Hence sacred love in purer streams shall flow,
And give fresh verdure to the fields below;
Revive, ye poor, nor drop a silent tear,
Your ills shall find a new Bethesda here;
Angels of health shall ev'ry day descend,
Nor shall the wretch complain he wants a friend.

Angel’s engraving is accompanied by more verses in the same style, calculated to appeal to the generosity of potential donors tempted by the thought of rewards in the afterlife:

See where yon sacred pile its front uprears
Where pain finds refuge - Mis'ry dries her tears;
Where heaven-born Charity its aid bestows,
To mitigate the sum of human woes.

There pining sickness may in peace recline
Whilst godlike Science lends its aid divine
To shed the glow of health on each wan cheek,
Make whole the strong, - Invigorate the weak.

Shall then our firm appeal be made in vain?
Can you refuse your aid this end to gain?
No! Devonians glory in these works of love
Which find their recompense in realms above.


Also on show at Fairlynch will be this 19th century Assistant Naval Surgeon’s Capital Set  in "A superior Brass-bound Mahogany Case, lined with Silk Velvet"  as described in the supplier's catalogue. It contains forceps, catheters, probes, knives, screw tourniquets, a tooth punch and a skull saw among other items. Manufactured by Evans & Wormull it was known as a  Capital Set because of the Capital Knife, used for amputations on board ship.
The saw would be used to sever the bone. The average amputation of a leg would take two and half minutes. Henry Carter would have bought his own similar set for use on the surveying ship the Palinurus during his two years on the Arabian coast
Image courtesy of the Devon and Exeter Medical Society
A fine example of early Georgian architecture, the Southernay building was eventually found to be inadequate as a hospital and is now a residential development. A new, modern hospital - known to most people as the RD and E - opened at Wonford in 1974.

Fairlynch Museum and its 2013 exhibition ‘Sea, Salt and Sponges’ will open on Friday 29 March and run until 30 September 2013, with extra opening over October half-term  

I am indebted to Christopher Gardner-Thorpe’s account of the history of the Exeter Hospital at for some of the above information.

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