Pollock, Gordon Douglas
International Review of Scottish Studies,Vol 24 (2009)
Hospitals are keystones of our contemporary health care system. Within those buildings medical practitioners perform complex procedures, reconstructing bodies broken in accidents or ravaged by diseases. It has not always been so. Some have argued that in the past hospitals were unhealthy places, incu- bators of disease, a concept not entirely alien even today. Certainly, it seems questionable whether eighteenth and nine- teenth century hospitals were positive influences on community health. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, coupled with a lack of effective medicines contributed to this perception of institutional ineffectiveness. As sensible as that opinion might seem there are scholars who dispute it. Based on his study of a number of English provincial voluntary hospitals in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Stephen Cherry notes that mortality rates in those institutions were relatively low. Guenther Risse supports this notion, arguing that Scottish hospitals in the eighteenth century were comparatively healthy places.
Much of Professor Risse’s data is derived from his study of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, a leading voluntary hospital established in 1729. No meaningful comparison can be made between Edinburgh and Glasgow hospitals in that century. Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary did not open until December of 1794 but in succeeding decades the new Infirmary became known as one of the leading voluntary hospitals in Britain. Designed by the celebrated architect Robert Adam, it was a profound statement of a new Glasgow, already a commercial force and a burgeoning industrial centre. An amalgam of impulses, humanitarian, economic and civic pride, gave impetus to the hospital.