Smethwick Hospital

Smethwick did not have its own general hospital and most people that required hospital treatment went to St Chad's Hospital, Hagley Road, Birmingham. I was born at St Chad's in 1945 and was brought up with my brother in Dunsford Road, Bearwood.

Smethwick did, however, have a hospital that many Smethwickians remember as the old "fever hospital". In fact its proper title was Smethwick District Isolation Hospital. It was situated over a large area at the top end of Holly Lane and the corner of Manor Road. It was built towards the end of the 19th century, in approximately 1886 after an outbreak of Cholera in 1857, which decimated the population of Smethwick. The hospital was built to deal with any future, similar catastrophes.

Over the years many Smethwickians were treated at this hospital, mainly victims of TB, Diphtheria and Scarlet Fever. In fact my mom had Diphtheria in the 1920's and was in Smethwick hospital for 14 weeks.

After the Second World War and with the inception of the NHS, immunization programmes and the discovery of antibiotics led to isolation hospitals becoming redundant. At the same time there were several rapidly expanding branches of medicine, including neurosurgery and neurology. In the post war period building of new hospitals was seldom possible due to the lack of funding at a time when the vital needs of industrial expansion were the priority. Existing buildings were modified instead and the hospital in Smethwick was one of several institutions that were selected as being suitable for adaptation.

To bring about these changes money was made available by the Ministry of Health. In 1945, through the Birmingham Regional Hospital Board, Mr J M Small FRCS was appointed as surgeon in charge of the Regional Centre for Neurosurgery at Smethwick, with the task establishing and developing it. In 1954, after five years of intensive planning and preparation Smethwick Hospital was re-opened in its new role as the Midland Centre for Neurosurgery. Six years later it was renamed the Midland Centre for Neurosurgery and Neurology (MCNN) - a grand title indeed for such a small, 75-bedded hospital. Few people knew, at that time, just how important a role it was to play in pioneering new neurosurgical procedures and conducting research into the treatment of neurological diseases.

My involvement with MCNN began in September 1960 when my friend, Jackie Taylor, from Montague Road, Smethwick and I were accepted on a pre-nursing course at Hallam Hospital. To our surprise we were placed at the MCNN in Smethwick. Neither of us had ever heard of Smethwick Hospital and it wasn't until my mom told me it was the old "fever hospital" that I realized where it was. We were both rather disappointed but there was nothing we could do about it.

I remember my first morning walk down this long drive, flanked by a large brick wall on the left, hiding the cemetery. At the top of the drive, on the right, was the lodge where the doctors lived. A little further down was the telephone exchange. At the bottom of the drive was a Victorian 3 storey mansion which one might have thought was the hospital, but no, this was the nurses' home. The wards themselves were spread out behind the nurses' home in four, single-storey blocks, joined together by long, wide corridors. The layout of course reflected the original use as the fever hospital and was quite unique. Each block was light and airy with large windows with some wards having double rooms with a conservatory addition on one side. Between the blocks were neat hedgerows and flowerbeds, including some lovely rose trees. There were some new buildings including a new outpatients department, a new theatre and x-ray block and a small dining room. Smethwick turned out to be not at all what I expected. It was a small and friendly place. I thoroughly enjoyed my 3-year stay there.

In 1963 I went to Hallam to start my nursing training properly. It was then that I realized just how much help and experience I had gained while at the Midland Centre for Neurosurgery. So much so that, after passing my finals and becoming a state registered nurse in 1966, I decided to do a post graduate nursing course in neurosurgery and neurology.

Soon after I completed the post graduate course I was offered a theatre sister's post and stayed there until 1978 when I left to have a family. I was very happy at the Midland Centre and have fond memories of the hospital and the people I worked with. I was proud to have been part of such a pioneering team.

It wasn't until I returned later that I appreciated just how important the Midland Centre for Neurosurgery and Neurology had become. In fact, during the 1970's it was one of the most sophisticated units for its purpose in Europe being the only self-contained hospital outside London devoted to this specialty. The centre's national and international reputation attracted, from all over the world, young doctors wishing to study neurology and neurosurgery. There was a very active post graduate medical education programme and, in addition to their heavy clinical responsibilities, the staff carried out research into major disorders of the nervous system such as brain haemorrhages, cerebral thrombosis, brain tumours, muscular dystrophy, migraine and many other conditions. They contributed over 250 scientific papers to the medical literature as well as publishing six text books written by members of staff. It was one of the first hospitals to have a radioisotope brain scanner and also an electron microscope which was capable of magnification to ¼ million times. During the 1970's a teaching and research fund was set up to finance the building of a new lecture theatre. Some well known names like Sir Alfred Owen CBE, who was Chairman of Rubery Owen, and Sir Raymond Brookes, Managing Director of GKN, were trustees. In fact it was Sir Raymond Brookes who laid the stone for the new lecture hall which was completed in 1972. This was a great asset to the Midland Centre and at the time was equipped with the most advanced technical facilities.

Sadly, in 1996, the unit at Smethwick was transferred to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital to join the neurological & neurosurgical teams in Birmingham. The whole MCNN site (which was quite considerable) was smashed down except for the lodge and the cemetery and is now a large housing estate. I have lots of stories to tell about the Midland Centre but that's for another day. However, our archives at the Heritage Centre are very short of information about Smethwick Hospital and we would love to hear from people who worked there or were patients there when it was the "Fever Hospital". Any photographs or copy photographs would be much appreciated as the only ones we have are of the demolition in 1996.