Suppurating Cambridge

I posted a few days ago on the Peregrine Falcons who have taken up residence on the tower of the University Library, but had no idea at the time that the land on which the library was built in the 1930s (to a design by George Gilbert Scott, who also designed Bankside Power Station, now Tate Modern) had during the First World War hosted part of an important military hospital – the First Eastern General Hospital – with a reputation for pioneering techniques in the healing of open wounds.


The hospital, established in 1908 (contingent on mobilisation), was in fact widely distributed over Cambridge. It had its headquarters in Trinity College and wards and accommodation both there and in the Ley’s School, as well as some dedicated wards at Addenbrooke’s (which supplied much of the medical contingent), and on the playing fields south of Burrell’s Walk (belonging to King’s and Selwyn) – the current location of the University Library.

During the war over 80,000 wounded soldiers were routed through the First Eastern, many directed there in order to benefit from its specialised treatment of suppurating open wounds – patients would be immersed in circulating saline baths 24 hours a day, which would accelerate the cleansing and healing process, the baths themselves concealed under boards and quilts so that it was not immediately obvious that patients were lying in water.

From an account in the British Journal of Nursing of 1916 (which you can read here), it seems that the hospital was predominantly open air, composed of huts with one side always open to allow for free circulation of air. The walls of the huts were asbestos (although the journal records the conviction of one man that they were of alabaster).

The journal concludes by expressing the hope that the deeply entrenched peacefulness of the university town (the occasional margarine riot notwithstanding) might have contributed in some degree to the healing process. I have to say I find that doubtful, but it is nice to think that where those suppurating soldiers once lay in salt baths, a great tower of books now stands, host to a nesting pair of those most mobile of birds, peregrine falcons.

There are a number of photographs of the hospital here.


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