This week marks the 20th birthday of St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum, a fascinating on-site exhibit on the history of the iconic hospital and the evolution of modern medicine. To celebrate here’s 7 things you probably didn’t know about St Bartholomew’s Hospital…
It’s a whopping 894 years old!
St Bartholomew’s Hospital was founded in 1123 by Rahere, an alleged clerk employed by Henry I. Rahere fell ill with malaria and swore that if he recovered he would build a hospital for the sick and poor in London. He did eventually recover and went on to found St Bartholomew’s Priory and Hospital in Smithfield. Ever since its founding St Barts has provided continuous patient care on the same site. This makes St Barts the oldest hospital in Britain still providing medical services!
The early hospital wasn’t just for the sick
During medieval times the hospital also accepted the elderly, pregnant women, homeless children and babies born in the nearby Newgate prison. It wasn’t until 1546, when King Henry VIII refound the hospital and granted it over to the City of London, that the hospital stopped acting as an orphanage and hospice, and instead increased it’s capabilities for helping the sick poor.
It’s had a rather lucky past
Despite four-fifths of the city being destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, the hospital escaped undamaged. Several centuries later during WWII the Hospital also managed to survive the Blitz without any substantial damage.
Women couldn’t train as doctors and men couldn’t train as nurses at St Barts until the mid 20th century
In 1850 the first female student, Elizabeth Blackwell, was granted admission into St Barts medical school, however just 15 years later another student, Ellen Colborne, had to leave after male students demonstrated against her. After that, women were not granted entry to the medical school until 1947. However, it wasn’t just the women who were not allowed into one of St Barts schools. Men were not permitted into the School of Nursing until 1979. Gender stereotyping really does work both ways!
Some of the prettiest parts are not open to the public
The North Wing of St Barts is home to the Great Hall, a room which dates back to the 1730’s and was originally the meeting place of the Board of Governors. As well as a stained glass window of Henry VIII and a painting of St Bartholomew, the hall is decorated with panels recording lists of of hospital beneficiaries and the amount they had given. The amount next to many of the names is £50, as anyone giving this amount could become a governor. The hall is no longer used for it’s original purpose, however it is still not accessible to the general public. It is now used for ceremonial occasions, concerts and social functions.
Famous British artist William Hogarth painted a staircase for free, despite his fear of heights
The grand staircase leading up to the Great Hall is home to two murals painted by William Hogarth, The Pool of Bethesda (1736) and The Good Samaritan (1737). Hogarth, who was born in Bartholomew Close, was outraged by the news that the hospital was hiring Italian painters and therefore offered to paint the murals for free. However due to his fear of heights, the more intricate of the two murals, The Pool of Bethesda, was painted in a different location, whilst The Good Samaritan was painted on site but with far less detail.
It’s where Sherlock and Dr Watson first met
It was in a chemical laboratory at St Bartholomew’s Hospital that Sherlock Holmes spoke the words “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive” upon first meeting Dr. John Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1887 novel A Study in Scarlet. Before serving in Afghanistan as an army surgeon Dr Watson had trained and worked at the hospital. After returning to London he mentioned to an old friend that he was searching for cheaper lodgings. His friends told him about a man who was doing some work in the chemical laboratory at St Barts who was looking for someone to share a flat he had found. This man turned out to be Sherlock Holmes.