Tuesday 5 May 2015

The Cork Street Fever Hospital Archive by Fergus Brady

In 2013, the Cork Street Fever Hospital archive was donated to the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (RCPI). Following a recent funding award, the archivists at the RCPI began the process of cataloguing and preserving these extensive and important medical records. The project is now complete and the final collection list is available to browse through the online RCPI catalogue. In this month's post, Fergus Brady, Archivist, RCPI, reports on the archive and outlines the history of this fascinating Irish medical institution.

Photo of nurses and patients on the lower landing of Cork Street Fever Hospital, Dublin, Ireland, 1903
Nurses and patients on the 'lower landing', Cork Street Fever Hospital, 1903
(RCPI Archival Collections: CSFH/1/2/1/6)

RCPI win Wellcome Trust funding to catalogue Cork Fever Hospital Archive

A project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, to fully catalogue the archive of Cork Street Fever Hospital has been completed by the staff of the Royal College Physicians of Ireland Heritage Centre. As part of the project, appropriate measures were also taken to ensure the long-term preservation of the archive so that the hospital’s records will be accessible to researchers both in the present and into the future.

The origins of the House of Recovery and Fever Hospital, Cork Street, Dublin

Minutes, Governors of Cork Street Fever Hospital, 1801
(RCPI Archival Collections: CSFH/1/1/1)
The House of Recovery and Fever Hospital on Cork Street, Dublin, grew out of a series of meetings held between a group of wealthy and philanthropic men drawn from Anglican and Quaker congregations during October 1801. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Dublin, as elsewhere in Europe, insanitary conditions ensured that infectious diseases were prevalent among the general population. Those present at the October meetings had a clear idea of the nature and scale of such health issues, stating that ‘...no adequate Hospital accommodation has hitherto been provided for the relief of the Sick poor of Dublin afflicted with fever (especially such as may be of a contagious Nature)’. Influenced by the fever hospital movement in Britain, the provisional Committee believed that the solution lay in the ‘establishment of a House of Recovery to which patients on the first appearance of Fever might be removed’.1

The fever hospital opens

Original entrance to Cork Street Fever Hospital, erected in 1804
Original entrance to the hospital, erected 1804
(RCPI Archival Collections: CSFH/7/1/6)
Less than three years later, on 14 May 1804, the newly-erected House of Recovery and Fever Hospital on Cork Street admitted its first batch of patients. As its name suggests, the hospital physically separated the sick from the convalescent by the constructing two buildings 116 feet apart in what was an early attempt at infection control.2 The erection of such purpose-built buildings was intentional, as the hospital’s founders were influenced by prevailing theories regarding the control of infectious diseases.

Early years and fever epidemics

Drawing of Cork Street Fever Hospital and House of Recovery, 1899
Cork Street Fever Hospital and House of Recovery, 1899
(RCPI Archival Collections: CSFH/1/2/1/5)
In the early decades of the hospital’s existence its catchment area expanded from the Dublin Liberties to the whole of the city. Hospital buildings were extended to meet the admissions triggered by the regular epidemics which ravaged the poorest districts in the city. A fever epidemic in 1817—1819 put severe pressure on the hospital, with admissions doubling in 1818. In 1826 an epidemic of typhus necessitated the erection of emergency tents. The 1830s and 1840s were periods of exceptional activity, as the number of patients admitted swelled due to outbreaks of cholera and typhus. In 1847 tents were erected and 400 emergency beds provided to allow for the admission of patients suffering from a typhus outbreak, which had been stimulated in large part by the influx into Dublin of thousands of famine-stricken refugees from the countryside. These regular epidemics took their toll on the health of the medical staff, and in particular the nursing staff, many of whom were struck down with fevers contracted during the course of their work.

The 'Red House'

Nurse and two children on the balcony of the Red House, Cork Street Fever Hospital, Dublin, Ireland, 1909
Nurse and two children on the balcony of the Red House, 1909
(RCPI Archival Collections: CSFH1/2/1/6)
In the 1860s and 1870s epidemics of smallpox placed great pressure on the hospital’s resources, with a record case fatality rate of 21 per cent recorded in 1878. In the last few decades of the century measles, typhoid, scarlet fever and smallpox predominated, prompting the hospital governors to build the ‘Red House’ on the grounds of Cork Street, and to open an auxiliary hospital for convalescents at Beneavin, Finglas. In 1891, hospital reports recorded diphtheria for the first time, a disease which became a significant health problem in the early twentieth century with the arrival in Dublin of the virulent gravis strain.

The move to Cherry Orchard

Patient arriving in ambulance at Cork Street Fever Hospital, Dublin, Ireland, 1896
Patient arriving at hospital in ambulance, 1896
(RCPI Archival Collections: CSFH/1/2/1/5)
In the early twentieth century there were two changes that significantly altered the running of the hospital: in 1904, the hospital was granted a Royal Charter under which Dr. John Marshall Day was designated first Medical Superintendent; and, in 1936, the Dublin Fever Hospital Act changed the hospital from voluntary to municipal control. This alteration sought to “make provision for the establishment of a new fever hospital in or near the city of Dublin and for the closing of the House of Recovery and Fever Hospital, Cork Street, Dublin”.3 Planning for the development of a new hospital was long and protracted, however, with both the Second Word War and a 1944 sworn inquiry into alleged maladministration in the hospital contributing to delays. Led by the efforts of Dr. Day’s successor as Medical Superintendent, Dr. C. J. McSweeney, a 74-acre site was finally secured at Blackditch, Palmerstown, Co. Dublin, and building tenders received in early 1950. The hospital board decided that as the name Blackditch evoked images of plague and death, the address of the new hospital should be changed to Cherry Orchard. In November 1953, patients and staff vacated the premises at Cork Street and moved to the new House of Recovery and Dublin Fever Hospital, Cherry Orchard.

The Cork Street Fever Hospital archive

Staff of Cork Street Fever Hospital, Dublin, Ireland 1938. Dr. C. J. McSweeney, Medical Superintendent, is  pictured sixth from the right in the second row
Staff of Cork Street Fever Hospital, 1938
Dr. C. J. McSweeney, Medical Superintendent, is
pictured sixth from the right in the second row
(RCPI Archival Collections: CSFH/1/3/4/1) 
The archive of Cork Street Fever Hospital is large and varied, and consists of a series of records relating to hospital management, staff, students, patients, finances, buildings, hospital history and events. There are also records of inquiries, routine administration and domestic tasks, and individual Medical Superintendents. The run of minute books is remarkably complete, stretching from the first meetings of the provisional managing committee in 1801 to 1953, a span interrupted only by a gap of twelve years between 1828 and 1842. Similarly annual reports, which usually include medical reports, run from 1801 to 1953 with few omissions. Records relating to individual Medical Superintendents are particularly plentiful for Dr. C. J. McSweeney’s tenure (1934–1953), and consist for the most part in report books, research and teaching notes, drafts of articles and papers, and other ephemera. Patient records are, unfortunately, less comprehensive, with the earliest surviving register of patients dating from 1924 to 1929. Access to patient records and other sensitive files containing personal data are subject to Data Protection legislation and conditions laid out in the RCPI Heritage Centre’s guidelines. There are also some records across the various series which date from the decades following the transfer of the hospital to Cherry Orchard.

If you have any queries about the collection, please contact heritagecentre@rcpi.ie.

1. Cork Street Fever Hospital Committee Proceedings, 23 October 1801.
2. Patricia Conway, Sheila Fitzgerald and Seamus O’Dea, Cherry Orchard Hospital: The First 50 Years (Dublin, 2003), p.  2.
3. Ibid., p. 3.

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