Dead famous

9 January 2012

 A map of London: showing sites of medical and other interest, 1913. Wellcome Images.
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A map of London: showing sites of medical and other interest, 1913. Wellcome Images.

Even a short walk through Bloomsbury is an encounter with many ghosts of medical history. William Birnie accompanied Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow Dr Richard Barnett on one of his recent excursions.

A crisp, sunny December morning was an ideal opportunity to set off on a guided walk around Bloomsbury, to discover the stories of the prominent inhabitants that have lived there over the centuries. We wrapped up warm, met our guide Richard Barnett by the information point in Wellcome Collection, then set off on our Dead Famous (a superbly appropriate title) walk around the area.

A number of characters and their stories made me pause and reflect. It is these I have written about, as to tell every story would require many a book!

During the introduction to the tour, I could not help but think about the sheer number of distinguished and eminent individuals who have resided here. Perhaps the same can be said for many a locale in London, but Bloomsbury does have a distinctive hold on the imagination. The names discussed and evoked bounced around like a succinct cultural who’s who, with Thomas Wakley, William Burroughs, Hans Sloane, Virginia Woolf, and Kenneth Williams among them.

Our first stop was outside a little shop called ‘What the Dickens’. The flat above previously occupied by none other than W. B. Yeats. Just around the corner from this flat there is a house where the poet John Berryman once lived. Berryman is not perhaps as famous as some of his fellow American confessional poets, including Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath, but he was a poet greatly influenced by Yates. Berryman went as far as stating that he ‘didn’t want to be like Yates; I wanted to be Yates.’ This is just one example of the many captivating connections we discovered during our walk.

The crescent facing Cartwright Gardens was laid out in the 1820s, and it was here that Edwin Chadwick, the social reformer, lived for a time. For someone said to be an austere man with no sense of humour, Chadwick had a far-seeing vision when it came to the conditions of the poor. By the 1830s London was the first industrial capital; it was rich and incredibly filthy. Chadwick was part of the Royal Commission established in 1832 to decide reforms to the Poor Law system in England and Wales. Their recommendations were later enacted in the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. This New Poor Law aimed for a standard system of relief focusing on the workhouse, as there was a growing view around this time that with the free market the poor were responsible for helping themselves. If they did not, then they were deemed lazy.

Chadwick was appalled at the numbers of people entering the workhouses and felt that if people were healthier there would be a drop in the numbers. Perceiving that dirty vapours were poisoning the population, thus breeding poverty and disease, and extremely  concerned with the question of sanitation, his 1842 report, The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population, was published at his own expense. It was a milestone in the history of public sanitary reform.

Next stop: Hotel Russell. The dining room here was designed by Charles Fitzroy Doll, and is said to be almost identical to the one he later designed for RMS Titanic. Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw used to stay here when in London, and we were told a number of his ideas concerning life. Opposed to vaccination against smallpox he felt all modern medicine to be quackery. As a staunch vegetarian he commented: ‘I was a cannibal for 25 years. For the rest I have been a vegetarian.’ He was, however, a great believer in the treatment provided by Dr Jaegar’s Sanitary Woollen System, a system developed in the late 19th century.

Gustav Jaeger’s book, published in 1880, detailed his belief that clothing made from plant fibres such as cotton and linen were unhealthy. The book promoted the idea of wearing only wool next to the skin. The notion was that sweat, as the body’s way of releasing poison, was bad for your health and by wearing tight clothing made of such plant fibres you were only reabsorbing your own poison. Jaeger advocated the use of wool fibres throughout the home for everyone, and a craze of wearing wool-jersey-long-johns was one taken up eagerly by Shaw. We all had a smug giggle at the thought of George Bernard Shaw strolling out of the Hotel Russell on a hot summer’s day wearing a woollen jacket and long-johns.

A short walk away is Queen’s Square where the writer Frances Burney lived in the late 18th century. Her first novel, Evelina, was a witty social comedy published anonymously in 1778 and details English upper middle class life from the perspective of a seventeen-year-old woman. Jane Austen spoke of Burney in her letters as one of her favourite writers. She married a French exile and moved to Paris after the French Revolution, and it is during her life in France that her story holds particular medical interest for us at Wellcome Collection.

In 1811, Burney noticed a pain and swelling in her right breast which, after having consulted all the best doctors, was believed to be cancer. An operation was needed: Burney underwent a mastectomy in the days before anaesthetic, with a wine cordial the only comfort given to her.

She recalled the operation in a letter to her sister some months after the event, with the envelope marked: ‘Account from Paris of a terrible Operation – 1812’. Fiction, medical history and suspense combined with surgical data all merge in this letter.  She speaks of being powerless, her body handed over to the surgeons as an ‘objectified entity’. This letter is an important document in the history of surgical technique and also a piece of powerful literature. She writes of waiting for the doctors to arrive, with the ‘seven men in black’ entering her room at three. As she was awake throughout the entire ordeal she is able to remember with remarkable clarity the operation. Gory to say the least, it is in her own words that we can best imagine the horror of such a procedure: ‘a scream that lasted … during the whole time of the incision-& I almost marvel that it rings not in my ears still! So excruciating was the agony.’ A medical report at the bottom of her account tells us that the operation lasted 3 hours and forty-five minutes, and that the patient showed ‘un grand courage’.

In a walk that took us past The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, to the entrance of the British Museum and later to the edge of Tottenham Court Road, we covered a lot of distance; characters and time bound together by this one location. One of the last peculiar stories told involved the University of London’s Senate House building, described by Evelyn Waugh as ‘that vast bulk… insulting the autumnal sky’. Seemingly it inspired George Orwell, who would often walk past it on his way to the BBC, to disguise it as the Ministry of Truth in his novel Nineteen Eight-Four. It seemed an appropriate ending for our enlightening tour of Bloomsbury.

William Birnie is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection. You can contact him at If you’ve taken photos on any of our walks, or of other medical sites in London, we’d love you to add them to our Medical London Flickr pool.