A hundred years ago tomorrow King George V and Queen Mary opened Perth Royal Infirmary. If a former employee had not stumbled on an account of the royal opening, this milestone anniversary may have passed without note, writes Nora McElhone.
On July 10 1914, as Europe stood on the brink of war, the King and Queen opened a hospital in Perth. With the centenary of the First World War fast approaching, it is perhaps understandable the anniversary of Perth Royal Infirmary was almost overlooked altogether.
Indeed, it would have been if it weren’t for 60 year-old former PRI employee and amateur historian Bruce Leckie.
“I was actually researching something else when I came across an article in an old newspaper about the royal opening of the PRI,” he said. “It’s a milestone that I thought shouldn’t have been ignored.”
Bruce has collated his research on the opening and royal visit into a commemorative booklet, Centenary of Perth Royal Infirmary, which is available for sale in aid of the PRI endowment fund.
Thanks to his discovery, Perth residents, staff and patients will have the opportunity to celebrate 100 years of Perth Royal Infirmary, with an exhibition and a health fair taking place at the hospital tomorrow.
The royal visit was an exciting occasion for the people of Perth and the surrounding area, with crowds thronging the streets to catch a glimpse of the king and queen. King George V and Queen Mary had travelled to Perth from Dundee by train before processing to the hospital, giving people the opportunity to pay their respects.
As 100 years ago the idea of votes for women was still in its infancy, the occasion also attracted interest from the suffragette movement.
The couple’s progress through Perth was marked by several incidents, including a woman jumping on to the running board of the royal car and attempting to break a window. Other suffragettes attempted to throw papers into the car but all were eventually detained by the police.
A century on, in a vastly different social and political environment, Perth Royal Infirmary cares for patients from all over Tayside, and the hospital would probably be unrecognisable to those who were instrumental in building it.
The City and County of Perth Royal Infirmary was established at a time when great strides were being made in modern medicine and public support had resulted in the creation of a building that was fit to serve the people of Perth and beyond.
Over the years staff helped to welcome famous faces including Ewan McGregor and Fred MacAulay into the world and royalty returned to the hospital in the form of Princess Anne, who opened a new wing in 1993.
Prior to 1914, Perth’s hospital was housed in what is now the AK Bell Library on York Place. As Bruce points out, the location wasn’t ideal: “If you can imagine, back at the turn of the 20th century, the railway was behind the hospital so it would have been covered in smoke and smog 24 hours a day from steam trains it couldn’t have been very healthy.”
The hospital also outgrew this site and the search began to find a new building, and the money to pay for it. “It was funded by public subscription the great and the good of the local community stuck their hands in their pockets, plus the councils.”
One huge change was the establishment of separate children’s wards in the new building. Prior to that the children were treated on the same wards as adults.
“There were two children’s wards at PRI; one was built with money raised by public subscription as part of Perth’s memorial to the late Edward VII and the other ward was funded by two brothers in memory of their late father it was known as the John Whyte Memorial ward.”
During the royal visit, King George V showed particular interest in these new wards and their residents. He and Queen Mary were introduced to David Williamson from Stanley, who was just 13 and the first person to be operated on in the new infirmary.
The couple also took the time to greet a little girl called Helen Steele, just 18 months old at the time. Clutching a Scottish Standard, she rewarded the King and Queen with a smile.
“Even the king alluded to the fact that PRI was one of the most advanced hospitals in the country,” says Bruce, whose personal knowledge of the building reveals secrets that have been hidden by modernisation.
“They had purpose-built operating theatres that were bright and airy. If you go up above the ceilings today, you can see the windows that lit the operating theatres. They were all lit by daylight, with glass roofs, different from today.”
A look at the birth and mortality rates in Perth and Kinross between 1914 and 2014 reveals just how those early strides towards improving patient care have gathered pace. Although the birth rate has decreased by 46%, better healthcare and environmental improvements have contributed to a dramatic decrease in the infant mortality rate from 116 per 1,000 live births in 1914 to fewer than one per 1,000 in 2014.
As Bruce writes in the introduction to his booklet, he and everyone who works or has worked at PRI is immensely proud of the history of the hospital and the care that it provides for people in Perth and beyond. “Whether a surgeon or a cleaner, and every trade and occupation in between, we are all part of the same team and we are continuing the legacy of our forebears.”
His investigation of the history of the hospital has revealed great stories and characters. “It’s been a fascinating journey,” he says. “But the one person I would like to sit down with is Bessie Dora Bowhill, who was the first matron in the hospital but left in 1915 to nurse in the First World War. I would like to hear her story.”
Bessie is just one of the staff (Bruce Leckie included) who worked to serve their local community at PRI over the past 100 years and the hospital looks forward to caring for the people of Tayside for many generations to come.