More than bricks and mortar: the Vision of Medical Education in the buildings at St Mary’s of 1933

St Mary’s Medical School Library, 1949 

The laying of the foundation stone on 30 June 1931 of the current medical school building at St Mary’s by the then Duchess of York, president of the Hospital and later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, was of such national and even international importance that the speech of the former prime minister Stanley Baldwin was broadcast to the world by the BBC. In it he appealed for more money for medical scholarships and the endowment of medical schools such as St Mary’s Hospital Medical School. He declared that ‘British medicine and British brains were the finest in the world, but without adequate funds those British brains would not be able to afford a medical education’. In his opinion the new medical school and Pathological Institute buildings at St Mary’s would be worthy of one of the premier medical schools of the British Empire and donations towards it would better e nable St Mary’s Hospital to ‘continue its service to humanity’. 

 The laying of the Medical School Foundation Stone, 1931 

If anything the opening of the new buildings by George V of on 12 December 1933 was an even more splendid occasion than the laying of the foundation stone and reflected the sense of national and imperial importance represented by the new medical school buildings. Cambridge Place, as Norfolk Place was then called, was decked with union jacks and bunting. The route of the royal procession from Marble Arch along Edgware Road and Praed Street to the Hospital was decorated by Paddington Borough Council. George V and Queen Mary were received at the entrance to the Medical School by the Duke and Duchess of York who escorted them into the library, crowded with the senior staff of the hospital and medical school in full academic dress and their wives. Also present were the Chancellor of the University of London, the Presidents of the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, the MP for the University of London and the Regius Professors of Medicine from Oxford and Cambridge among many other distinguished guests. The Bishop of London offered up a prayer of dedication. Music was provided by the band of the Royal Artillery Regiment, although plans for the trumpeters of the Life Guards to sound an opening fanfare were vetoed by the King who disliked the sound they made. Charles Wilson, the Dean of the Medical School who had long fought for new buildings for his medical school, stressed that the opening was more than of mere local importance but offered a future path for other medical schools to improve their facilities: 

‘Now that it has been made plain for the first time in London that a medical school can be completely built out of British funds, it is our hope that other schools may be encouraged to carry out their plans with the assistance of the public. It has been shown that there are in England men who of vision who realise that the health of the people is inseparably associated with the training which the medical schools give to the doctors of tomorrow … On an occasion like this our thoughts are not in the past but with the future.’ 

In his reply, the King whose life had been saved by St Mary’s physician William Broadbent and two of the hospital ward sisters when he suffered from typhoid in 1891, stressed that ‘the buildings and equipment of a medical school must keep pace with knowledge, and inevitably there comes a time when radical change is required … I pray that with God’s blessing the beneficent work of the school, and the hospital with which it is associated may prosper and extend.’ In his tour of the new buildings the King was scathing about the ‘horrible’ furnishing of the common room, which was too ‘modern’ for his taste, while Queen Mary took a liking to the Common Room carpets but completely failed to see the point of Fleming’s germ paintings which were proudly on display. 

Almouth Wright lecture theatre 

These magnificent new buildings were a replacement for the original and outdated buildings that had served the medical school since its opening in 1854. Whilst the architect of St Mary’s Hospital, Thomas Hopper, had built a dignified public building reminiscent of the country houses he was more accustomed to designing, his more utilitarian medical school was said to resemble a stable block. Tucked away in South Wharf Road, it was according to the surgeon Edmund Owen ‘as difficult to find as Meckel’s ganglion’. By 1920, when Charles Wilson, later Lord Moran, became Dean, these buildings were completely out of date and suffering from dereliction. The future of the medical school itself was in doubt and the University Grants Committee was adamant that St Mary’s had no future as an undergraduate medical school. Through the setting up of clinical medical and surgical units and valiant attempts to improve the standards of teaching and recruit more academically able students, Wilson was able to stave off the threat of closure and raise the reputation of St Mary’s as a medical school. However, the buildings remained woefully deficient and new buildings were essential if St Mary’s were to claim a place as a leading modern medical student. 

Wilson’s ambitions to rebuild his medical school were furthered by the pressing need of the Hospital for more space if it were to keep up with the demand to treat more patients and keep pace with the latest medical developments. In the 1920s a triangular site on the other side of Cambridge Place, largely occupied by slum housing, was purchased by the Hospital for £65,000 from its freeholder the Grand Junction Canal Company. Wilson saw an opportunity for the construction of a new medical school on this site and lobbied for space on the so-called island site. However, money was needed if this were to become anything more than a pipe dream. Medical students were recruited to fundraise but greater sums than they could raise were required. The University Grants Commission was prepared to offer support, but the bulk of the funding came from the wealthy benefactors courted so assiduously by the Dean, especially Lord Revelstoke, Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Iveagh. Through them Wilson raised over £88,000 which gave him a claim to space for his new buildings on the site. Another claim for space was laid by Wilson’s arch rival Sir Almroth Wright, head of the Inoculation Department, who wanted new laboratories for a new Institute of Pathology and Research. The new medical school was to face the hospital entrance, while the Pathological Institute was to be on the corner of Praed Street and what is now Norfolk Place, to be linked to the Inoculation Department research ward in the Clarence Wing of the Hospital by a bridge. For many years the ground floor of the Wright Fleming Institute on Praed Street was rented out as shops providing a useful source of income. Behind the medical school, the remainder of the site was to be a new nurses’ home, now Salton House, linked to the hospital by an underground passage to allow traffic between the nurses’ home and hospital without the need to go out into the street. Only the first phase of the nurses’ home had been built by the outbreak of the Second World War and the large nurses’ home was never completed. 

Sir Edwin Cooper was appointed as architect by the Hospital and was responsible for the Lindo Wing, Salton House, Medical School and Wright Fleming Institute buildings at St Mary’s. Cooper also had plans for remodelling and extending the Hospital which never came to fruition. Other buildings for which Cooper was the architect include the Royal Mail Headquarters, Lloyds Insurance Building Marylebone Town Hall and Gray’s Inn Law Library. His dedication to his building work at St Mary’s was shown by his personal donation of the wood for the pillars and walls of the Medical School library. Originally, it was intended that the school would be built around a quadrangle with a central fountain, reminiscent of Oxbridge colleges, but the money was not there to build it in one go, just as the new nurses’ home could only be erected in stages. In 1933 the frontages along Cambridge Place to the corner of South Wharf Road and along Praed Street were completed but it was to be many years before it was completed as originally intended, although the central courtyard was never to materialise as ever greater demand on space necessitated infilling with temporary and permanent erections. Not until 1954 was it possible to think about completing the building. In 1954 the centenary of St Mary’s Hospital Medical School was marked by the sealing by Queen Elizabeth the Mother of a time capsule containing one of Fleming’s Penicillium notatum moulds, a stop watch set at the 3 minutes 59.4 seconds of Roger Bannister’s historic mile and a copy of Sir Zachary Cope’s history. This capsule was to be the foundation stone for the extension but was kept in the library until the foundation stone could be officially laid by the Queen Mother in 1959. This Centenary Wing ran along South Wharf Road and externally is in the same style as the earlier part of Cooper’s buildings though inside the layout was modified for modern needs. It was not until 1969 that the fourth side of the building, the Variety Club Research Wing containing the Wellcome Laboratories for Experimental Pathology, was completed but in a more modern and brutalist architectural style completely at odds with Cooper’s neo-Georgian design. 

Opening of the new medical school, 1933 

The new Medical School opened in 1933, housing lecture theatres, laboratories, a magnificent library, common room, gym, squash courts and a large swimming pool was considered to be one of the best buildings of its kind in the United Kingdom. It represented in bricks and mortar, Wilson’s ambition to build a medical school made up of ‘intellectual athletes’ who would be educated in fine surroundings and make a great contribution to medical care in their future careers. Wilson’s wife Dorothy chose the furniture for the common room which had so offended George V because it was so modern in style. When the wisdom of supplying good quality and expensive furniture that would only be ruined by the rough antics of medical students, Wilson replied that if the students were given something of quality they would look after it. The swimming bath was originally planned to use a revolutionary method of irradiation to sterilise its water, but this proved impractical to install and never progressed beyond an aspiration. 

Undoubtedly the highlight of the building and one of the great glories of the St Mary’s Campus has always been the Library with its oak panelling, gallery, false pillars, decorated columns, chandeliers and plaster casts of the St Mary’s seal. It is a fine interior of the early 1930s and suggests a temple of learning and a civilised place in which to study. When first opened it was criticised for being bigger than the library of the Royal Society, though there were few books to fill its shelves. However, it was intended from the start as more than just a library. It was also built as a Speech Hall. The very phrase Speech Hall seems redolent of the 1930s and vaguely Germanic in tone, but it is obvious that the space was designed with ceremonious occasions in mind. In this it was merely replicating the original Medical School Library established in 1854, which had been the scene of the opening address at the beginning of each academic session, prize givings, examinations, meetings of the Medical Society, smoking concerts, dances and the annual dinner. Throughout the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, it remained the scene for the official proceedings of most Royal visits to both St Mary’s Hospital and Medical School. During the Second World War, the then Dean, Lord Moran, used it to describe his travels as Winston Churchill’s doctor to audiences of students. On another memorable occasion in 1947 the Dean Dennis Brinton welcomed new students, including the first intake of women students since 1924, with the startling tidings that the erection in the courtyard was for the benefit of the women students. The Library was also transformed into a ball room for dances and balls, the annual New Year’s Ball being an important part of the social life of the School after the War. It also became a concert hall for the regular concerts of the St Mary’s Hospital Musical Society founded in 1941. Celebrity musicians, including Segovia, Yehudi Menuhin and Kathleen Ferrier, performed here. The Opera was staged in the Library every year. In 1945, a Royal Command Performance of the Mikado was graced by Queen Elizabeth, who asked if she could bring along the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. The Dramatic Society similarly turned the Library into a splendid theatre for its productions. The Medical Society continued to meet in the Library. Less happy associations for many graduates are evoked by the use of the Library for examinations. Until the end of the War, despite complaints about the disturbance caused to students in the reading room below, the gallery was used for teaching purposes. Inevitably, the use of the Library for so many other purposes meant that its primary function as a library was often severely disrupted. When the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Recreation Centre was built in the early 1980s, it was possible to transfer the other functions there and use the Library purely as a place of study – no doubt much to the relief of the Library staff. 

Lord Moran, Dean of the medical school during the Second World War 

Physically the Medical School embodies the principles articulated by Charles Wilson when it was first built in the 1930s and represents a physical monument to the very ethos of the former St Mary’s Hospital Medical School and also to the idea of necessary progress: 

‘The growing decrepitude of the old school buildings which date from 1850 will soon pass and in their place will rise up the beautiful building which Sir Edwin Cooper has designed for us. A beautiful environment fosters tradition and stirs up the spirit of service to an institution that is latent in youth. But the fame and fortune of a medical school are not built of bricks and mortar. They are in the keeping of its students. In the certain faith that education is the only remedy for our present distress I trust that they may go forth from these walls in the fullness of time to spread respect for truth and in that manner make their own contribution, however small, to the ultimate reign of reason’. 

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