A distressed mother hits out at Great Ormond Street Hospital

engraving

Great Ormond Street Hospital, c.1858 from The Illustrated Times 

Most if us are familiar with the amazing work that Great Ormond Street hospital does today. Great Ormond Street (or GOSH) opened in 1852 with a mission to treat  sick children. At the start it only had 10 beds and treated the sick poor from the local area. It was founded by Dr Charles West, who had written and lectured extensively on the particular diseases of children and how to treat them.

GOSH was a charity, and so relied on donations to survive. Within a few years it was in trouble, unable to treat the number of patients that applied to it. In 1858 Dickens gave a performance at a charity dinner, raising enough money to buy the property next door and extend provision to 75 beds. In 1871 readers of a popular children’s magazine, Aunt Judy’s Magazine, donated £1,000 to sponsor a cot; this set a trend for future sponsorships.

So by 1872 the hospital had survived an early crisis and was now well established. it treated the children of the poor, providing a much needed service not available before. In the Victorian age children were increasingly valued and legislation was passed to protect them. The idea of ‘childhood’ (something limited largely tot the children of the wealthy) was extended to all children in the later 1800s.

GOSH was a pioneer from the start, and the hospital has seen many advances in paediatric medicine. In 1872 surgeons began to experiment with the use of electricity to treat paralysis and other ailments.  There years later GOSH’s first purpose built 100 bed hospital opened to the public and in 1878 a dedicated paediatric nursing college started training future nurses.

The extent of medical knowledge in the 1800s had improved considerably from the previous century but it was still very limited by today’s standards. In June 1872 a ‘respectable’ mechanic’s wife came to the Clerkenwell Police court to complain about the hospital to Mr Barker, the sitting magistrate.

Mrs Sarah Hornblower lived at 52 Johnson Street, Somers Town, and when one of her children fell ill she took it to the hospital. The child was an out patient at GOSH from April 1872 but on June 7th it fell dangerously ill and she took it in again.

While she waited to be seen to the poor child died in her arms, and she left it with the hospital while she went to make arrangements for its burial. When she returned later she discovered, to her horror, that a post mortem had been performed.

While this was, it was later established, standard procedure, it came as a terrible shock to Susan. When she complained to the justice she told him that:

‘the surgeons, without her authority or sanction, had cut open her child from the throat downwards’, and no one it seems had apologised or explained it to her.

Later that day Mr Barker was able to discuss the complaint with the hospital’s house surgeon, Mr Beach. He explained that Mrs Hornblower’s child had been suffering from croup or diphtheria and it was important to establish which had proved fatal. Croup (or laryngotracheobronchitis) is caused by a virus and affects the lungs. It causes a ‘barking’ cough and today it very rarely proves fatal.

Croup was not contagious but diphtheria is. Today diphtheria is rare in the UK because children are vaccinated against it, but in the 1870s it was a disease that could and did kill children in London.

So Dr Beach was being sensible he said, in checking for the cause of the child’s death so he ‘better attend to the applicant’s other children’. He was asked if there was any other way to ascertain what had killed the child, short of performing a partial autopsy. There was not he replied, and he had only done what was absolutely necessary.

Dr Beach added that Mrs Hornblower should not seen her child in that state. When she had entered the room where the body lay she had ‘in the most hasty manner pulled the sheet off the body, and thus it became exposed’. Mr Hornblower had been consulted and had agreed to the post mortem so the hospital was covered.

We can only feel sympathy for Susan Hornblower, the loss of a child is always a tragedy however it happens and she was probably shocked to see her son or daughter like that, and understandably in  distress she hit out. The magistrate told her that no one had done anything wrong and while she was upset there was nothing to support a summons.

He added that there ‘was a great deal of difference  between anatomy and making a post-mortem examination’, a possible reference to popular fears of the anatomisation of pauper bodies in the nineteenth century following the passage of Anatomy Act (1832), which allowed hospitals access to the cadavers of the dead poor.

We aren’t told in this report whether the child died of croup or diphtheria. Hopefully the Hornblowers’ other children survived and none were affected as badly as their sibling. We do know that GOSH remains at the forefront of paediatric care nearly 150 years later.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, June 22, 1872]

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One thought on “A distressed mother hits out at Great Ormond Street Hospital

  1. In 1946 a half-sister of mine was admitted to Great Ormond Street Hospital, suffering from diphtheria, from which sadly she died. She was not quite three years old. As you rightly say, this hospital remains at the forefront of the care of children, well supported to charitable donations.

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