Life Health & Wellbeing

Saturday 7 December 2019

Tour of Britain - bedpans, Brighton Rock and Bedlam

Bedpans, Brighton Rock and Bedlam made for an interesting holiday, says Maurice Gueret, but there's still no sign of Ebola

Maurice Gueret
Maurice Gueret

Maurice Gueret

At the dusk of summer, we managed a quick family trip to the south of England. It turned into a bit of a busman's holiday, as our driver (ahem) tried to visit new sites each day, not unconnected with the practice of medicine.

My 10-year-old daughter suspected something was up when I took her to see a collection of mouldy old bedpans in an antiquated building, bang in the centre of Oxford. These were the very receptacles in which Oxford scientists grew the first usable form of penicillin in the early 1940s. Just up the road at the old Radcliffe Hospital, a policeman by the name of Albert Alexander received the benefits of these bedpan cultures.

Penicillin dramatically improved  his infectious condition, but, alas, the supply ran out during treatment and he relapsed and died. It was my very first visit to historic Oxford, an absolute gem of a place, with some of the best book and stationery shops in the world. Not to mention 38 distinguished colleges and a great open-top bus tour. Alas, I have discovered it too late in life. Maybe our next generation will learn something there.

Back to the car and we were down on the south coast, waving colourful sticks of rock and trotting in merry anticipation out to the amusement arcade at the far end of Brighton Pier. Brighton is now a faded and jaded seaside town. Parts of it make Bray look like Cannes. It has fallen so far that even low-life politicians abandon it for their party conferences.

Supposedly 90 minutes drive from London (it took us twice as long), Brighton was once a hotbed town for illicit liaisons. Wealthy city folk and their second lovers would spend days on its beach or promenade and nights in hired rooms without fear of recognition or shame. A short hop up the Brighton beach is Hove, where Charles Stewart Parnell loved, lived and died at the age of 45. Supposedly of either a heart attack or pneumonia, but my doubts persist about both of those diagnoses.

The large house at Walsingham Terrace that he shared with Kitty O'Shea is no more. It made way some years ago for a particularly ugly seven-storey tower block. A green plaque declares that an Irish statesman died in a house that was once near this spot. The eccentric Parnell hated the colour green to the point of aversion.


Last stop on the busman's holiday was a distinguished old building south of London's Thames in Southwark. Once the notorious 'Bedlam' mental hospital, my grandfather did his training to become a psychiatrist there in the late 1920s, just before it moved to Croydon in 1930. The history of the Bethlem Royal Hospital is long, tortuous and not for the faint-hearted. And the sort of history recorded in it today is not much easier. Bedlam is now the site of the newly refurbished Imperial War Museum and at the front of the building where two attendants in white coats would once greet new inmates, now stand two of the biggest and most intimidating battleship guns you will ever see. It's an extraordinarily good museum, and not just for military know-alls. There is currently an excellent exhibit of original war art, with many masterpieces on loan, and the extensive Holocaust section reminds us all of the horrors of turning on friends, neighbours and fellow humanity.


To rescue me from Bedlam at the museum, the ladies in my life bought me a book called Medical Services in the First World War. It was a real education. Doctors might assume that they were at the forefront of military medicine, but this was one branch of healthcare where good nursing counted for more, and where the real caring profession came into their own. As we still see today, nursing skills were undervalued and taken for granted. Members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry had to qualify in first-aid, home nursing, camp cookery, horsemanship, veterinary and signalling, all at their own expense. They had to buy their own uniforms and then pay a 10 shillings enrolment fee. The main concern of officialdom was not to pay virtuous nurses or reward them in any way, but to protect their morals. In one division, a Florence Nightingale cape was specially designed to "conceal the female bosom from the gaze of licentious soldiery". Plus ca change.


I arrived home to the news that every GP in the country was being provided with equipment to ward off the Ebola virus. Don't be alarmed if your doctor replaces his corduroys and tweeds with a Ghostbusters suit as he fetches you from the waiting room. The so-called 'Ebola Kits' have been arriving at surgeries up and down the country and comprise of masks, gowns, goggles, gloves and a waste bag, along with instructions about how to put them on. Some family doctors are frankly bemused. Others are angry saying that the money that is being spent on Ebola protection, might better be used on improving vaccination against the flu which is proven to actually cost many lives each winter. It does seem strange to me that the Department of Health wants to do so much to protect Irish doctors against theoretical cases of Ebola, but yet sits on its hands when it comes to new immunisations like rotavirus and shingles, potentially serious illnesses that affect young and old Irish people every day.


There's no end to traditional Irish cures that readers like to send me. Finola remembers as a child that if she or her siblings got a stye, her mother would take her wedding ring off, bless the eye with it, and the patient always recovered in a day or two.

Dr Maurice Gueret is editor of the 'Irish Medical Directory'

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