Victorian Britain may have seen great industrial advancement and various social reforms, but most Victorian children were seen as an encumbrance when parents were short of food and shelter and even if they survived, they would probably have had to earn their keep as soon as they were able to walk unaided.
There was also the additional threat to children with a 1 in 3 chance of death from the various illnesses and accidents; life was pretty grim for the majority of the juvenile population.
It was the high death rate with inadequate levels of affordable medical help and the lack of interest in paediatrics shown by the medical world that spurred the unsung hero, Dr Charles West into action.
At a time when children were seen simply as smaller versions of adults, West challenged many a belief that children should be treated the same way as adults when they became ill.
“… the child is treated as though he were in mind, as well as in body, a miniature man, feebler in intellect, as he is smaller in strength, but differing in degree only, not in kind”.
Born in London in 1816, Dr West first became interested in medicine during his teenage years and whilst he got off to a good start with an apprenticeship at a GP in Buckinghamshire, the religious persecution taking place in England at this time, meant West had to continue his studies abroad and eventually take a placement at Dublin’s Meath Hospital where his reputation in midwifery started to grow and gain respect.
West eventually secured a position as chief physician at the Waterloo Road Universal Dispensary for Sick and Indigent Children, but he failed in his attempts to persuade the organisation to transform the establishment into a children’s hospital.
But West remained undaunted and even more determined to find a way of providing free medical help for sick children whose parents were unable to afford the fees.
Fortunately West had close links with many influential people and his reputation for improving the world of paediatrics was even supported by Queen Victoria.
With the help of fellow doctor Henry Bence-Jones, West ignored the reluctance of the medical profession to take action and he started to organise a committee to oversee and support the establishment of a dedicated children’s hospital.
Finally on 14 February 1852 with just 10 beds, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children opened its doors. It was set up for children whose parents were unable to pay for medical help; those who could afford to pay medical fees were turned away.
The first patient to be admitted was Eliza Armstrong from Lisson Grove who was suffering from phthisis and bronchitis.
West’s aims of providing medical care for impoverished children also extended to encouraging clinical research into paediatrics as well as the training of specialist nurses:
“I would not advise anyone whose health is indifferent, whose temper is fretful or whose spirits are low to undertake the office of a nurse”.
There were many 19th century celebrities who supported his cause, amongst them Charles Dickens who gave regular readings from his book A Christmas Carol to raise funds that were used to buy an adjacent building so that the number of patient beds could be doubled. Other supporters included Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll and of course J M Barrie who donated all rights to his book Peter Pan to the hospital.
Following his death in 1898, the hospital continued to be the centre of excellence that West had always wanted, even when it was bombed during the Second World War, they managed to keep going.
As the 20th century progressed the hospital grew in both size and reputation but it needed a continuous injection of money to maintain its outstanding results.
In 1987 the Wishing Well Appeal was launched to fund refurbishments and create a parent’s accommodation block and cardiac wing. The teardrop logo was created alongside the slogan “Help Great Ormond Street Get Better”. They managed to raise a colossal £54 million in two years and that funded the Variety Club building that opened in 1994.
Because of the laws relating to the size of donations, the Great Ormond Street Hospital Charity was set up in 2008. The main aim was to stop the capping of funds so the money could continue to benefit the hospital, patients and their families. It also meant the hospital could continue to provide world class care and pioneer new treatments and cures for childhood illnesses.
Dr Charles West was a leader in paediatric care and Great Ormond Street Hospital has remained at the forefront of medical care for children but they need to raise over £50 million every year to maintain this exceptional service.
If you want to help “keep the magic alive” click here.