Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children and Charles Dickens


“Of this great city of London which, until a few weeks ago, contained no hospital wherein to treat and study the diseases of children – more than a third of the whole population perishes in infancy and childhood” Charles Dickens’ Drooping Buds published in Household Worlds Magazine, 5:106,1852.

Life in Victorian Britain was perilous. The conditions, especially in the poverty stricken areas in the East End were horrific. People lived in slums and had a basic lack of sanitation. Due to this many children were never expected to make it past childhood. Without hygiene and access to proper medical care, many children lived up to this poor expectation.

Alleyway in Slum District www.jantoo.com/slums

Britain was part of the Great Empire. She ruled countries all over the world. Her great capital, London, however was lacking. As pointed out by Dickens she lacked a hospital for children, those who would grow up to continue the legacy of the Empire. Luckily in 1852 this changed and Great Ormond Street Hospital, found at no.49 Great Ormond Street, Queen’s Square, London was founded. The hospital is now not only one of London’s most treasured landmarks but also is synonymous with outstanding medical care and research for Sick Children.

Dr Charles West founded the hospital in 1852. “West’s belief that sick children needed dedicated, inpatient care led him to open the Hospital for Sick Children at Great Ormond Street” (gosh.org). Here children could receive the medical care they needed in a safe environment that supplied them with food, shelter and clean surroundings.

Dr Charles West  www.gosh.org

Inside the hospital

When the hospital first opened it contained only 10 beds. However the founders had already realised the importance of milk for the hospital. Twelve days before it opened the Godmanchester Milk Company became the official supplier to Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Before 1914, patients of the hospital mainly consumed condensed milk. However this had little nutritional value and was a major contributor to infantile digestive problems and TB. (HHARP.org)

By 1866 ‘The Milk Room’ saw the consumption of 250 quarts (62.5 gallons) a week! The importance of the milk room demonstrated the correct nutrition that the children received during their stay at the Hospital. (HHARP.org) Many of the patients came from the surrounding slum areas and lived in poverty. One such case is chronicled on the HHARP website. The address given at the time of his admittance contained, “11 families, totalling at least 43 individuals” Willie had contracted tubercular disease and this was probably a direct action of his living conditions.

As with modern hospitals Great Ormond Street Hospital had a busy pharmacy although it was known as the Dispensary. The hospital spent £42 (HHARP) on drugs and surgical instruments in 1852. After signing it’s first drug contract they became one of the leading hospitals in medicinal trials. This is work that continues today.

As listed on the HHARP website these are some of the medications given:

Wine, (a surprisingly large quantity of alcohol was consumed on alcohol premises!)

J Wycliffe Peck, pharmacist (seated) with staff of the pharmacy. Wycliffe Peck was pharmacist to the hosptial from 1894-1936.  www.hharp.org

Dickens and medicine

Charles Dickens is one of Britain’s most iconic authors. His work is celebrated all over the world for his championing of the poor and their quest for bettering themselves. Dickens charts the life of Pip in Great Expectations, the orphan boy brought up by his sister until an unknown benefactor wishes for him to become a gentleman. He is also crated the iconic Oliver Twist, another orphan who found wealth. As a man from humble beginnings Dickens always took a keen interest in London’s poor and weak. 

In many of his novels Dickens includes hospitals, doctors and nurses. Donald Hawes writes, “Given the uncertain nature of medical care compared to what we expect today and given the number of illnesses that were accepted as part of everyday life, it is not suprising that Dickens, like other Victorian novelists, presents us with a number of cases of physical and mental incapacity and suffering” (58)

Dickens used his journalism skills to spread news of Great Ormond Street Hospital and to gain support for it. He wrote Drooping Buds in ‘Household Worlds Magazine’ in 1852. In the article he emphasizes the importance of the hospital in “this great city of London” (p45). Dickens also uses powerful images of children’s graves, “those little graves two or three feet long, which are so plentiful in our churchyards” (45) to conjure up public sympathy and interest.

The article also enables the reader to see the interior of the hospital and gain an idea of its environment. He describes the “neat and new appearance of the hospital walls” and a “woman with a child in her arms was finding ready admission in the great hall” (46). The opening description of the hospital allows the reader to imagine the new hospital ready to serve its purpose of helping sick children.

Dickens continues to describe his journey within the hospital and describes what he sees in the wards.
‘little eyes looked up from little beds, was quite a cheerful sight. The walls were painted, in panel, with rosy nymphs
and children; and the light laughter of children was our entrance. Nothing was sad here.’  P.47
The repetition of ‘little’ emphasises that the hospital is for children. The tone of the article changes here, it becomes more light-hearted and cheerful, which echoes the tone of children. An ideal scene is depicted of the children through the sounds of their laughter. This would appeal to any mothers reading the magazine and therefore is a good way of drumming up support and therefore financial contributions to the hospital.

 In the article the reader gets a sense of what the ward looked like,

“Light iron cribs, with beds made in them, were ranged, instead of chairs, against the walls.” (47) By saying cribs are against the walls instead of chairs, Dickens is implying that the hospital could easily be extended.

Engraving of the Hospital’s original ward. From The Penny Illustrated Paper (1863)

One Christmas, as a way to raise funds for the hospital, with the hospital facing bankruptcy and with more patients than there was room, Dickens read passaged from his celebrated work, A Christmas Carol. The character of Tiny Tim could well have been a patient of the hospital. This act meant that all the funds needed to not only save, but expand the hospital were met. The HHARP website writes, “the words of Charles Dickens supported the hospital in the difficult early years of its life. Without his commitment, there may not have been a Great Ormond Street Hospital”. Therefore it is evident that the literature of Charles Dickens, among others, helped to secure the future of The Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children.

Works cited:

Dickens, Charles and Morley, Henry, Drooping Buds. Household Worlds. V:106. 45-47. 1852. Online http://www.djo.org.uk/household-words/volume-v/page-45.html

Hawes, Donald. Charles Dickens. London, GBR: Continuum International Publishing, 2007. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 23 March 2015.


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