Friday, 18 August 2017

A poetic patient

In this week's blog, Archivist Louise looks at hospitals from a different angle...

The current BBC series, Trust Me, follows staff nurse Cath Hardacre from Sheffield to Edinburgh. Suspended for whistle-blowing down in Yorkshire, she seizes a chance for a new life when a job is advertised working for 'South Lothian NHS Trust' at the 'Southern General Hospital' (some death certificates actually do state this institution, which was possibly an early twentieth century name for the infirmary at Glenlockhart poorhouse). The only snag is, the post is for an A&E doctor, not a nurse - but Cath's doctor friend Ally has just left Sheffield for New Zealand, fortuitously leaving her CV prominently in the bin. Cath plucks the document out, watches a few YouTube videos, applies for the Edinburgh job under Ally's name and is soon enough installed in a very nice flat with a view of Arthur's Seat. After all, being a doctor in A&E can't be too hard, can it??

The series, filmed right here at the University (you can see the Library where LHSA is based in this week's trailer), made me think about the portrayal of hospitals by artists and writers. I've recently become aware of William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), for example, who was a patient of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh (RIE) in the 1870s. Born in Gloucester, Henley developed tuberculosis as a child, leading to his left leg being amputated below the knee when he was just 16. In young adulthood, he started to write, but the tuberculosis infection returned when he was 23, and he was faced with amputation of his other leg. In a last-ditch attempt to save his leg, he traveled to Edinburgh, where he'd heard that a doctor called Joseph Lister was making great strides with aseptic surgery. Lister accepted him as a patient on a Reserved Ward of the RIE, where Henley stayed from August 1873 to May 1875, undergoing an operation that scraped out the dead bone from his infected leg, which was then packed with lint soaked in carbolic. Whilst Henley slowly recovered, he had plenty of time to write, including these lines on Lister himself:

"His brow spreads large and placid, and his eye,
Is deep and bright, with steady looks that still.
Soft lines of tranquil thought his face fulfil -
His face at once benign and proud and shy."

From A Surgeon, later The Chief)

A young Joseph Lister (sitting, centre) when a trainee doctor in the Infirmary, 1854 (LHSA photograph collection)

Henley wrote 28 poems in all during his time in the RIE; some first published in The Cornhill Magazine as Hospital Outlines: Sketches and Portraits. The poems also give a view of the other patients around Henley ('Through the loud emptiness and airy gloom,/A small, strange child, so old and yet so young!/Her little arm besplinted and beslung,/Precedes me gravely to the waiting room.'), nursing staff in the process of professionalization ('Her plain print gown, prim cap and bright steel chain/Look out of place on her'), and the general atmosphere of the hospital ('A square squat room that stinks of dust and drugs'). However, unfortunately we only have a very scant record of Henley's time in hospital in our records, with only one page of the Infirmary register filled in for his line, out of the usual two:

Henley's original admission record from 24th August, 1873 (third down). The second page of the register, which records information about medical condition and discharge date. is blank (LHB1/126/39)
One Infirmary patient mentioned in Henley's poems was 'John Gallagher', who 'Fell, some eighteen months ago/Smashing his shin'. No 1870s' case notes survive in the archive - however, from Henley's description, we get an idea of Gallagher's character that we just could not glean from institutional records:

"He like a collier swears, prays like a child,
Roars like a bison, laughs like something wild,
And makes us all like, pity, and despise him."

From A Patient 

According to his biography, Henley also went on to marry Anna Boyle, whom he'd met when she was visiting her elder brother, who occupied the next bed to Henley. Captain Boyle was in the merchant navy, son of Edward Boyle. The only Boyle I found mentioned in our records coinciding with Henley's time in hospital who could match the description was this gentleman:

Admission for an Edward Boyle, 'master mariner', admitted on 2 March 1874, bottom line (LHB1/126/40).
Henley's hospital stay inspired more new relationships - his poems prompted a visit by Robert Louis Stevenson, with Henley becoming the inspiration for Long John Silver. Henley remained a prolific writer until his death in 1903, and his obituary was even published in The Lancet, which praised the accuracy of his descriptions of general hospital life. His view of the sights, sounds and personalities of the Infirmary might not be widely known, but they provide a precious patient perspective into a changing world of hospital care:

"This is a ward in hospital. You see
The Field where Science battles with Disease,
And Hope - sweet Hope - succumbs to Death alone."

From The Ward

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