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Tales from the archive

Sufficient without waste: hospital food

It was reported that one patient had complained of the food in the hospital. The other patients when asked said the food was excellent, and the committee member was unable to discover any real reason for the complaint and was convinced it was simply that the food was different from what the patient was used … Read more

A new hip joint – in 1910

The archives of the Radcliffe infirmary include an account of a ten month stay in hospital in 1910. It was written by a 20 year old man who had a new hip joint made from his own bone. He ended up with one leg two inches shorter than the other, but this did not hinder … Read more

Hospital refuses to pay rates

In these days of debate and complaint about local taxes it is interesting to discover that resistance to payment is nothing new. In fact some very eminent citizens of Oxford, the Board of Management of the Warneford Hospital (then called the Radcliffe Asylum), were complaining about the unfair nature of local taxation 150 years ago. … Read more

Pretty awful today, Matron

After the discovery of Martha Jewell’s dead baby in the Radcliffe Infirmary in 1778 (Living and dying), the Matron, Mrs Whateley, was dismissed from her post. The Hospital Apothecary, who was responsible for the day to day care of the patients, was called in to a Governors’ meeting ‘and Reprimanded by the Chairman’ for his … Read more

Living and dying

On 30 November 1770 the Bishop of Oxford consecrated the Radcliffe Infirmary’s burial ground (long since buried itself), and the congregation prayed that it might be the ‘only useless part of the Establishment’. We have a record of at least one patient for whom the burial ground was useless, but only because she was discharged … Read more

Treating the patients: creosote, laxatives and galoshes

The Navigation Officer is rushed to hospital for brain surgery and his usual doctor is horrified. ‘Jim’, he exclaims, ‘you’ve got to let me go in there. Don’t leave him in the hands of twentieth century medicine’. In the film Star Trek IV Dr. McCoy goes on to cure Chekov with ease. However, perhaps we … Read more

Warneford doctor attacked by staff

‘Gentlemen, In consequence of the violent abuse I received from Martha Kent, of whose conduct towards a female patient I thought it my duty to complain, and the shameful assault committed here, by one of the keepers, upon a tradesman, a few evenings ago, I have felt it necessary to absent myself from the Asylum … Read more

The doctor who didn’t believe in germs

A man is brought into the Radcliffe Infirmary after a fight with his wife and operated upon by one of the surgeons. The patient later dies, a post mortem is carried out and the Coroner holds an inquest, the jury bringing in a verdict of murder against the man’s wife. At the trial the surgeon … Read more


‘If any one is seized with sickness, slight vomiting, and purging, a burning heat at the stomach, with cramp in various parts of the body, and a feeling of cold all over, it probably is the Cholera’. So ran the comforting warning on a poster circulated in Oxford in the early summer of 1832. Cholera … Read more

Cold baths, Napoleon Bonaparte and homing pigeons

What do these have in common? No, this is not an essay on the British Army in the early nineteenth century; the answer is that all were instrumental in raising funds for Oxfordshire’s hospitals in the days before the NHS. Of course, fund raising is still part of hospital financing today, but before 1948 most … Read more