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The town of Smethwick is now part of the administrative borough of Sandwell, which itself is part of the Black Country conurbation, in the centre of England. Smethwick was originally a small industrial town on the outskirts of Birmingham. It is where James Watt and his partner Matthew Boulton set up their factory, in which they built their famous steam engines that were to change the nature of the world in which we live today. Many years later Smethwick was to house a major neurological and neurosurgical centre. It is here where Bernard Williams worked for most of his career and where he met and treated Ann Conroy.
You can read more about Ann and Bernard elsewhere on this website but here is a short history of that famous centre. It is adapted from a personal account written by Mary Lee (neé Childs), who worked for many years as a theatre sister at the Midland Centre for Neurosurgery and Neurology – still known affectionally, to many, as Smethwick Hospital. Mary has kindly given us permission to reproduce these parts of her article, which was originally published in the newsletter of the Smethwick Heritage Society.
Smethwick has never had its own general hospital and most local people who, in the past, required hospital treatment went to St Chad's Hospital, located on the Hagley Road, Birmingham. The site of St Chad’s is within walking distance of the Eaton Hotel, where the Charity now holds many of its functions. The buildings no longer function as a hospital but, instead, provide office accommodation for the local health authority.
Smethwick did, however, have a hospital that many locals at the time would have remembered as the old "fever hospital". Its proper title was Smethwick District Isolation Hospital and it was situated over a large area at the end of Holly Lane, at its junction with Manor Road. An outbreak of Cholera occurred in 1857, decimating the population of Smethwick. The hospital was therefore built, in 1886, to deal with any future, similar catastrophes. Over the years many local residents - “Smethwickians” - were treated at this hospital. They were mostly victims of TB, Diphtheria and Scarlet Fever.
After the Second World War, with the inception of the NHS, the introduction of immunization programmes and the discovery of antibiotics, isolation hospitals become redundant. At the same time there were several rapidly expanding branches of medicine, including neurosurgery and neurology, which required physical bases in which to function. Unfortunately, in this post-war period the building of new hospitals was seldom possible due to the lack of funding. At that time priority was given to what were seen as the vital needs of industrial expansion. Instead, therefore, existing hospital buildings were modified 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 Mr J M Small, consultant neurosurgeon, was charged, by the Birmingham Regional Hospital Board, with the task of establishing and developing a regional centre for neurosurgery, in the old fever hospital buildings at Smethwick. 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 realised, 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.
People visiting the hospital would walk down a long drive, flanked by a large brick wall on the left, which hid a cemetery for those who had died in the old fever hospital. At the top of this drive, on the right, was a lodge where the doctors lived. A little further down, also on the right, was the telephone exchange. At the bottom of the drive was a three-storey Victorian mansion, which gave the appearance of being the hospital but which was, in fact, the nurses' home. The wards themselves were spread out, behind the nurses' home, as four, single-storey blocks, joined together by long, wide corridors. This layout, of course, reflected the original use of the hospital. Each block was light and airy, with large windows and with a conservatory section running all along one side. Between the blocks were neat hedgerows and flowerbeds, including some lovely rose trees. To these original clinical areas were added some new buildings, including an outpatient’s department, a theatre suite, an X-ray block and a small dining room.
By the 1970s the Midland Centre had become one of the most sophisticated units for its purpose in Europe being, at the time, 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 several hundred scientific papers to the medical literature as well as a number of specialist textbooks. MCNN was one of the first hospitals to have a radioisotope brain scanner. It also housed an electron microscope that was capable of magnification to ¼ million times.
During the 1970's a teaching and research fund was set up, in part to finance the building of a lecture theatre and pathology museum. Trustees of this project included some well-known names at the time, including Sir Alfred Owen CBE, Chairman of Rubery Owen, and Sir Raymond Brookes, Managing Director of GKN. 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 was equipped with the most advanced technical facilities available at the time.
Sadly - at least for those who worked at or had been treated at Smethwick - the unit closed in 1996. It was transferred to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, where it amalgamated with the smaller facility that already existed there. All of the buildings on the Smethwick site, except for the lodge, were then demolished. A large housing estate now occupies the site, apart from the cemetery, which still exists.
There are many stories that can be told about Smethwick Hospital. The archives at the Smethwick Heritage Centre contain some further information and staff there would love to hear from people who worked at or were patients at the hospital, possibly even when it was the "Fever Hospital". Any photographs or copy photographs would be much appreciated as, sadly, the Heritage Centre possess none from before the demolition of 1996.
Ann Conroy Trust CIO
registered in England number 1165808