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Radcliffe Infirmary

A hospital for Oxford

The first proposals to build a hospital for Oxford were made in 1758 at a meeting of the Radcliffe Trustees, who administered the estate of Dr John Radcliffe (1650-1714), physician to Queen Anne. The sum of £4000 was released for the new hospital, which was constructed on land given by Thomas Rowney, MP for Oxford 1722-1759.

The Radcliffe Infirmary: 1835
The Radcliffe Infirmary in 1835

The honorary physicians and surgeons gave their services free, maintaining themselves by private practice, although there were junior doctors on the paid staff. The hospital depended on voluntary giving, and larger donations conferred the status of Governor, with the right to elect officers and recommend patients. A patient could only be admitted on a Governor's 'turn', a system which was ended officially in 1884. Some of the Governors continued to claim their right to admit patients until 1920, when 2d a week Contributory Scheme was introduced. Within three years this was providing 60 percent of the hospital's income.

The hospital opened on St Luke's Day (18 October) 1770. 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'. The hospital stood on a five acre site in the open fields of St Giles, which was then well away from the city, and had its own three acre garden. There were just two wards, male and female, but such was the demand by patients that another was opened by the end of the year and three more in October 1771. Such heavy use might seem surprising given the fact that many conditions were barred by the rules. Patients suffering from smallpox (or any infectious disease), epilepsy, ulcers, inoperable cancers, tuberculosis or dropsy were not admitted; neither were pregnant women, children under seven (except for major operations) or the mentally ill.

The rules on admission were relaxed during the nineteenth century. While the Radcliffe still did not cater for particular conditions, it was often associated with the development of separate specialist facilities. The Warneford Hospital (now part of the Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust) was originally the Radcliffe Asylum, founded as a sister institution. Infectious diseases were accommodated from 1824, but the fever wards were never adequate and eventually gave way to the city isolation hospital at Cold Arbour.

Two years later, in 1886, the Oxford Eye Hospital took over the original fever ward. A designated children's ward was opened in 1877. Maternity care was first provided in 1918, and shortly after this orthopaedic work began on the site of the Infirmary's convalescent home at the Wingfield Hospital, now the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre.

In 1919 the Infirmary purchased the Manor House estate, on which the John Radcliffe Hospital was eventually to be built. When the Churchill Hospital was no longer needed by the American forces who had used it during the first years of the Second World War, it was taken over by the Radcliffe Infirmary.

Rules for patients

A code of over 100 rules for patients admitted to the Radcliffe Infirmary was printed in 1770 and continued with few changes for nearly a century. They were strict, but not unusually so for the period. There was just one punishment for patients who did not keep them, and it continued in force until the twentieth century: those who offended were not admitted as patients again.

The rules laid down that inpatients must behave with decorum, attend chapel and refrain from swearing or playing cards. Newspapers and magazines had to be approved by the Chaplain. Patients were also expected to help with the nursing, the cleaning and the laundry.

There were no trained nurses at this period; even as late as the 1870s the house surgeon described the nurses as 'kind, intelligent, simple women of the superior servant class, without any pretension to being ladies'. In the early days one woman was in charge of each ward and she did all the nursing and cleaning, even fetching the coal and lighting the fire. When she went to have her lunch the patients were expected to look after themselves. At night one nurse looked after the whole hospital.

Outpatients were first admitted in 1835, and the separation of medical and surgical patients in the wards began in 1845. The association with the University of Oxford had begun whilst the hospital was still under construction. The medical staff were asked to prepare a schedule for the admission to the Infirmary of students in Physic and Surgery, and such students were admitted regularly from 1786. By 1939 there was a complete clinical school based at the Infirmary.

The bequests to the hospital and University of William Morris, later Lord Nuffield, led to the expansion on to the Radcliffe Observatory site in the 1930s. The Nuffield Maternity Home, a Nurses' Home, a private block, kitchens, a theatre and extensive wards were all built within an eight year period.

A pioneering hospital

On 27 January 1941, the first dose of penicillin was given intravenously to man at the Radcliffe Infirmary, and on 1 July that year the first accident service in Great Britain began.

Pioneering work continued after the war, and to this day. The Infirmary was the first provincial hospital to have an admissions office. The Oxford Centre for Prevention in Primary Care was established at the Radcliffe Infirmary, pioneering the concept of the 'human MOT'. The clinical nursing unit on Beeson Ward gained international recognition for its work on rehabilitation to greater independence and helping individuals to cope with illness or disability through nurturing, teaching and counselling.

In 1989 the Radcliffe Infirmary was one of three hospitals in the country used for the Electronic Data Exchange pilot scheme which allowed hospitals to order ward supplies directly from the manufacturer.

With the advent of the National Health Service in 1948, the Radcliffe Infirmary surrendered its independent status and became part of the United Oxford Hospitals, the Hospital Management Committee for Oxford. This continued until 1974, when responsibility passed to Oxfordshire Area Health Authority (Teaching) and then, in 1982, to Oxfordshire Health Authority. The Radcliffe Infirmary became an independent NHS Trust in 1993, and part of the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust in 1999.

The Radcliffe Infirmary closed in late 2007, with services moving in the main to the John Radcliffe Hospital West Wing. The building now belongs to the University of Oxford.

The Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust merged with the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre NHS Trust on 1 November 2011 to create the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust.

For more on Oxfordshire Health History, visit Oxfordshire Health Archives.

For more about Dr John Radcliffe, you may be interested in the following book.

  • John Radcliffe and his Legacy to Oxford by David Cranston, with illustrations by Valerie Petts
  • ISBN: 978-1-909075-18-4

Available online with £1 from each sale to Urology Cancer Research and Education.

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