Retro: Infirmary was city’s pioneering hospital

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A beautiful, grand Georgian building just off Infirmary Road that is now offices was once Sheffield’s first hospital.

The General Infirmary was opened on Albert Terrace Road in 1797 and its name changed to the Royal Infirmary a century later.

At first the buildings were surrounded by meadows, woodlands and quiet country lanes.

In January 1932, Dr Arthur J Hall gave a talk to the Sorby Scientific Society, where he mentioned that leeches were a great standby at the Royal Infirmary in the early 19th century.

Like the drug dispensary that became the Royal Hospital, mentioned in Midweek Retro last week, the hospital had its own ‘leechwoman’, Mrs Spooner.

The hospital’s leech bill in 1836 for just three months came to more than £30, which would have paid for at least 1,200 of the little blood-sucking critters.

As the good doctor said, people must have been covered in the things. Urgh!

Apparently the nurses at the time were not averse to taking a nip of the brandy kept for patients.

That reminded Dr Hall of a Charles Dickens comic character, drunken nurse Sarah Gamp, who appears in Martin Chuzzlewit.

Despite that uninspiring vision, the infirmary was the centre of lots of ground-breaking medical research.

A brochure written to celebrate its 150th anniversary in 1947 noted: “Its doors have been open to receive the sick and injured needing its care and treatment.

“This has been its main purpose but it has also been a centre for the training of doctors and nurses, and for the advancement of the science and art of medicine.”

In February 1964 a newspaper feature looked at the work of researchers who had spent 15 years exploring the causes of leukaemia.

The infirmary was also home to a neuro-surgery unit, performing often life-saving brain operations.

In 1969, heart operations had to be halted for a time because of a shortage of staff in the intensive care unit.

At the time only the Royal Infirmary and Northern General performed open heart surgery in Sheffield.

The NHS announced plans to spend tens of thousands of pounds on updating the facilities, including the nursing accommodation.

Three years earlier city newspapers reported that the Royal Infirmary had won a reprieve from closure by 1974.

The Ministry of Health accepted a proposal to keep the infirmary going for another 25 years, rather than closing it when the £12 million Royal Hallamshire Hospital was expected to be commissioned.

At that point it looked as though the infirmary could far outlast the Royal.

The stories also mention a new district general hospital that was going to be built at Norton in the 1980s.

In the end, according to Sheffield Archives, “the Royal Infirmary closed in 1980 when services were transferred and concentrated at the new Hallamshire Hospital. The last patient was discharged on December 13, 1980.

“The premises were finally vacated in December 1983 and the building was converted for office use.”

There’s a big supermarket plonked in front of the Georgian buildings that at one time were neighbours to Kelvin Flats.

In 1993, the then shadow health secretary David Blunkett returned to the hospital where he had been a patient as a child for the unveiling of a plaque to mark the infirmary’s bicentenary.

It’s where tragedy hit the Blunketts too as his dad died there following a works accident.

The ceremony was also attended by Elizabeth Joyce, the daughter of Dr Cecil Paine, who worked on pioneering research into penicillin at the infirmary.