Healthcare – Hospitals & Infirmaries

Until 150 years ago hospitals were rare and even critically ill or seriously injured people were normally treated at home. The first public health care in Kilmarnock for instance didn't appear till 1826, when the four local doctors set up a Dispensary for the Sick Poor in Ward Park (now Dundonald Road). Free treatment was given to those unable to pay a doctor's fees.

However infectious diseases of several types affected everyone - typhus and typhoid were common, and were usually described as "fever". A series of cholera epidemics, spread by contaminated drinking water, caused a lot of public concern. In 1832, 250 people died of cholera in Kilmarnock, and in 1849 another 130. 

At that date hospitals were usually paid for by rich benefactors or by public subscription, and often run by town councils. This continued till the National Health Service was set up in 1948.

The Crichton Royal, Dumfries

James Crichton was born in Sanquhar in 1765. In 1808 he retired from his career in India to live at Friars' Carse, five miles north of Dumfries. When James Crichton died in 1823 he left his wife Elizabeth a large sum of money to be used to help the community in any way she choose. Finally she decided to establish a hospital to treat the insane. At this time mentally ill people lived in the local Poor House, a place for those who could not support themselves. For the wealthy there were private institutions, but for the violent or criminally insane prison was the only alternative.

While the hospital was being built Elizabeth Crichton searched for someone to run it. She chose the Superintendent of Montrose Lunatic Asylum, Dr William Alexander Browne. He believed in curing, not confining, the insane. He wrote that his ideal asylum should be spacious and fitted with galleries, workshops and music rooms. Extensive grounds and gardens should surround it. At the Crichton Royal the 33 year old Dr Browne was given the opportunity to implement his ideas. He was an enthusiastic Superintendent, determined to fulfil Elizabeth Crichton's aim to establish an asylum that would be the best in Europe. On 4 June 1839 the first patient was admitted.

Dr Browne found that the chief obstacle to his ideal was the lack of suitable staff. Nurses were untrained, yet they were the people who had most contact with patients. In 1854, six years before Florence Nightingale instituted her training school at St. Thomas' Hospital, London, Dr Browne began a course of nursing lectures - a landmark in nursing history.

At its peak the Crichton Royal housed up to 1300 patients. It had its own water supply, power station, farm and gardens.

Dr Browne wanted his patients to be kept busy and interested. From its opening the Crichton Royal had a patients' library. The New Moon Magazine, produced by patients, first appeared in 1844, and in 1846 Dr Browne established a museum. He placed great emphasis on entertainment, and staff and patients participated in concerts and plays. Painting and drawing were encouraged, as well as other forms of creative arts and crafts.

Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary

The establishment of the first hospital in Dumfries in 1776 was the achievement of one man - Doctor John Gilchrist of Speddoch.

He believed that sick people should to be cared for in a hospital and strived to get the support of the townsfolk. He met with some hostility because people feared that a hospital would, "become the resort of vagrants or of those unhappy persons whose habitual hardships, imprudence or intemperance, had rendered them useless and burdensome to the public".

He received a better response from local landowners, and a society was formed to campaign and raise money. While it looked for a site for the hospital, the society began converting a house in Burns Street as a temporary measure. By November 1776 the out-patient clinic and dispensary were ready, and a few months later two wards, each with four beds, were opened.

Meanwhile work on a hospital at the High Dock was underway, and in October 1778 the building opened. It was supported by annual subscriptions, legacies and donations and could accommodate 42 patients. Admission was limited to those recommended by subscribers, who had to guarantee to find the funeral expenses should treatment prove unsuccessful! The patient had to agree to leave the hospital within a certain period of time, and some illnesses, particularly those that were incurable or infectious, were not treated.

By the mid 1800s Dumfries was a busy port and market town. The town was over-crowded and the dirty and badly ventilated houses were an ideal breeding ground for disease. The hospital was now too small to cope with the demands of the expanding population, and a new building was proposed. The new hospital, known today as Nithbank, opened in 1873.

One hundred years later came the opening of the current Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary, built on the site of the Crichton Royal Hospital's golf course. This hospital had 424 beds and 400 staff, but it has expanded rapidly.

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