The comings and goings at Dispensary

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Morpeth Dispensary was founded in 1817 so this year marks its 200th anniversary.

Parson and White’s Directory, 1827, says: “The Dispensary, for the relief of the indigent sick and lame, is situated in Oldgate... for which Mr William Watson officiates as apothecary.”

Hodgson says that he was still the apothecary in 1832, but this is not correct. His successor, Mr Thomas Gibson, was appointed in 1829.

Mr Gibson is described as a surgeon rather than an apothecary, but the difference was not great. Whoever they were, the dispensary doctor had to set bones, cleanse and bind wounds, diagnose conditions, and prescribe and mix medicines.

Mr Gibson was a mild man and easily overborne. In 1839 a young woman in the union workhouse called Ann Thompson was dying of tuberculosis. As her doctor, he brought in a piece of teacake to help her take her medicine. The Board of Guardians called him in and publicly reproved him for this simple act of kindness.

In 1850, there was an attempt to dismiss him to make way for a younger man with influential friends. There was no Morpeth newspaper then, but letters appeared in the Gateshead Observer defending him and the attempt to unseat him was frustrated.

Many of the local medical practitioners gave their services to the Dispensary free of charge, in addition to working in their own private practices.

This is from the Morpeth Herald of February 12, 1859: “Morpeth Dispensary.— This excellent charity, we have pleasure in announcing, has recently had the names of the whole of the medical practitioners resident in the town, added to the medical staff, which in course of time had dwindled down to one, namely Robert Shute, Esq., Mayor, who, for 39 years has rendered gratuitously his services to the Institution.

“The resident Medical Officer, Mr Gibson, continues to discharge the duties of his office, as he has ever done, skilfully, and with attention....The days and hours of attendance have been altered to Mondays and Fridays, at 10 o’clock; medicines are dispensed at one o’clock.”

At that time, the most prestigious members of the profession were the physicians. They were university trained and were entitled to call themselves Dr. Only the wealthy could afford them.

Surgeons, too, gave all-round medical care, but although there were colleges of surgery, they tended to qualify by apprenticeship and so ranked below physicians, both professionally and socially.

The Apothecaries Act, 1815, broke new ground by laying down proper training requirements. Apprenticeship was compulsory, they were to study anatomy, botany, chemistry, materia medica and physic, and had to work in a hospital for at least six months.

It was still possible, however, to qualify with a ‘broom and apron’ apprenticeship until examinations were made compulsory in 1834.

The Medical Act of 1858 changed everything and created the medical profession as we know it today. Doctors and surgeons could henceforth only qualify in a professional institution or at university.

The Act did not stop people who qualified the old-fashioned way from practising, but they could not sue in court for their fees and could not hold certain official positions.

Mr Gibson died in March 1863. On April 4 the Morpeth Herald reported that his successor: "must possess a qualification in medicine and surgery, in accordance with the terms of the medical act. The patients of this charity will in the meanwhile be attended in rotation by Mr Brumell, Dr Jobling, Dr Paton, and Dr O’Connor.”

On May 16 it reported that: “Out of five candidates, only one possessed the qualifications required by an old bye-law of the Dispensary, Mr John Arthur Haslewood, MRCSE, LSA, of St Auslett’s, Cornwall, (probably St Austells) who was duly elected to the office."

I wonder if the 'old bye-law' said that the Dispensary doctor had to be a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries?

By 1873 the resident surgeon was Frederick William Skrimshire.

In 1876, the first edition of D.F. Wilson’s Handbook to Morpeth said: “Morpeth Dispensary is situate in Bell’s Yard, Bridge Street, the object of the institution being to afford medical attendance and medicine gratuitously to indigent persons. The medical staff consists of four duly qualified gentlemen, who comprise the medical committee, and a house surgeon, the gentleman occupying that position at the present being Mr J.H. Gosling.”

In fact, after Mr Gibson’s death, house surgeons never seem to have stayed long.

In 1877 Mr F. Barrow was replaced by Dr George R. Chadwick. In 1882, Mr Arthur Bannie, of Aberdeen, was elected in place of Dr Chadwick. In 1887 Dr A.C. Dutt, of Calcutta, became House Surgeon. At some stage it was a Dr Stanley Yeoman, and in 1889 Dr Gidley.

In Kelly’s Directory for 1894, it was James Kenneth Watson, MB, CMEdin., and the honorary surgeons were W. Clarkson, F.W. Skrimshire, A. Brumell, H. Dickie and J.P Philip.

All of these, except Dr Skrimshire, were highly qualified. Yet he was in private practice at Chantry House in Bridge Street, was the Medical Officer for the Urban Sanitary Authority and for the No. 2 District of the Morpeth Poor Law Union, and was a Certifying Factory Surgeon.

In none of these capacities did he have letters after his name so he either didn’t bother with them, or he was allowed to practice with pre-1858 qualifications.

In 1899 the then House Surgeon, Dr John Henry Head, resigned and entered into his own practice in Gosforth.

There must have been some difficulty in replacing him because Dr Kunz stood in for 18 months until the Dispensary appointed its first lady doctor, Dr Marion J. Ross, MD, in November 1901.

Kelly’s Directory for 1914 says that the house surgeon was Miss M. Pringle, MB, ChBEdin., DPH Durh., the voluntary medical establishment at that time being Hugo de Dreux Kunz, Arthur Brumell, Hugh Dickie, James Porter Philip and Thomas William McDowall.

Dr McDowall was the Medical Superintendent of the County Lunatic Asylum. Dr Dickie was the Medical Officer of Health for the Borough, and Dr Philip for the Rural District.

As it turned out, Miss Pringle was to be the last House Surgeon. She left in January 1915 and no applicants could be found to replace her. As a temporary measure, four local GPs were each allocated part of the town and were paid £5 per month.

In 1927 it was found that the case-loads in the different districts were so unequal that a new system was adopted. Patients were allowed to go to whichever doctor they chose and doctors were paid on the basis of the number of Tickets they returned to the Dispensary. This continued until July 5, 1948, when the National Health Service came into being.