A punch-up at St Thomas’ hospital as medical students protest their exclusion

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The operating theatre at St Thomas’ Church in London [http://thegarret.org.uk]

In December 1836 the Union Hall police magistrate was presented with two competing charges of assault. Both related to an incident in St Thomas’ hospital where a number of operations were being carried out.

At this time it was common for operations to take place in public, in a theatre which was, in many respects, just that. Medical students from St Thomas’ and St Guy’s were joined by ‘foreigners’ and other invited guests to see the surgeons perform their craft. On this occasion they were to have witnessed Mr Travers perform a series of lithotomy operations*.

However, the operations were cancelled because a disturbance broke out involving a number of student dressers from St Guy’s. These were the junior doctors of the day; having served an apprenticeship for 5 to 7 years they now shadowed a surgeon for up to a year on the wards.

Attending operating theatres was therefore a vital part of their education.

It seems that in the recent past there had been some trouble at St Thomas’ and that trouble was blamed on the St Guy’s students. So, as Mr Travers told the court, a decision (an ‘extraordinary’ one he added) to exclude their sister hospital’s students from the theatre. The hospital porters were therefore deployed to stop any unauthorised people from getting in.

This did not go down well with the student doctors; two dressers from Guy’s (a Mr Linguard and Mr Carrington) determined to go anyway. They ignored the signage banning them and tried to push past one of the doormen.

As he tried to enter Linguard was seized by the collar by a porter named Williams and told he could not go in. Rather than take no for an answer the junior doctor struck out at Williams and his friends piled in. In the process the door of the theatre was ‘smashed in pieces’ and the unfortunate porter was nearly thrown over a balustrade to his death.

The cases were heard before two magistrates and they quickly dismissed Linguard’s charge that Williams had assaulted him by grabbing his collar. They said they could not adjudicate on whether the students had any right to be admitted and decided that the assault on Williams was of so serious a nature that it should be heard before a judge and jury at the next Sessions of the Peace.

Carrington and Linguard were bailed for the assault and another student, named Musgrove, similarly bailed for the damage to the door of the operating theatre. St Guy’s has excellent records but sadly these are not available for me to look at online to find out whether the three young doctors got over this obstacle to their medical careers or not. It’s probably fair to say though that, like today, surgeon’s dressers were overworked and underpaid.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, December 22, 1837]

*the surgical removal of a calculus (stone) from the bladder, kidney, or urinary tract

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