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Sir Charles Brown, Victorian surgeon in Preston, tells all

Posted on - 15th May, 2022 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - History, People, Preston City Centre, Preston News, Winckley Square
Dr Sir Charles Brown painted by William Norris Simm Pic: The Harris
Dr Sir Charles Brown painted by William Norris Simm Pic: The Harris

A famous resident of 27 Winckley Square was Doctor Sir Charles Brown. Sir Charles was born in Preston and became a renowned surgeon. This was at a time when surgery was often fatal. However, in his lifetime he saw advances that were to revolutionise survival rates. 

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Winckley Square was a well known area for the professional classes to live. Most of the houses had accommodation for servants and horses. In 1854 complaints were sent to the press about grooms exercising horses in the afternoon, and mowing down passers by.

The Preston Royal Infirmary opened in 1870. By this time anaesthesia and an understanding of bacterial infection had made a stay in hospital less likely to result in death.

House surgeon at Preston Dispensary

19th century midwifery Pic: Illustrated London News
19th century midwifery Pic: Illustrated London News

Dr Brown worked in London for a while, before qualifying at the Kings College medical school. At the time only the wealthy could afford higher education. There was no state medical care, so this was left to charities and the Church.

Brown’s father died in 1858 and due to this he returned to Preston, so that he could earn an income. He became the house surgeon at Preston Dispensary

The dispensary opened in 1811; it was paid for by subscriptions from the public and administered by the overseers of the poor. There were also midwifery services available to the poor.

The building was on the site of the later infirmary.

Victorian medicine

Early surgery is lampooned in this 19th century cartoon Pic: The History Collection
Early surgery is lampooned in this 19th century cartoon Pic: The History Collection

Before the 1840s, hospitals were known as houses of death. For example, few survived amputation, as there was no anaesthesia or basic anti-infection procedures. Dr Brown would have seen massive advancements in his time as a doctor, as he describes in his book Sixty-four Years a Doctor. He noted that wards were filthy, with maggot infested wounds and lice ridden bedding.

Often amputations were carried out with the patient still conscious. A piece of leather was jammed in the mouth and then the saw was driven through flesh and bone. Often the wound would become infected and the patient would die of blood poisoning.

Survival rates for surgery were so poor that some hospitals charged for the patients own burial, at the same time as the operation!

The Preston Royal Infirmary

The Preston Royal Infirmary, early 20th century Pic: Preston Digital Archive
The Preston Royal Infirmary, early 20th century Pic: Preston Digital Archive

By 1866, the old dispensary was becoming inadequate. In 1870 the new Preston Royal Infirmary opened and Dr Brown paid for an operating theatre, at a cost of £2,700.

The buildings became the Preston and County of Lancaster Queen Victoria Royal Infirmary in 1929. The complex closed as a hospital in 1990, and two of the Grade II listed buildings are now used as student accommodation. 

Preston’s poor health and the school of domestic science

The school for domestic science dedication stone Pic: Preston Digital Archive
The school for domestic science dedication stone Pic: Preston Digital Archive

The health of Preston’s residents was notoriously bad in the 19th¬†century. Dr Brown thought that young girls, who entered the mill at an early age, made terrible wives and mothers. Hence, he urged the authorities to make domestic science compulsory in schools. This he achieved in 1896, and the¬†School for Training in Cookery, Laundry and Household Management¬†opened in 1903 in Glovers Court.

Dr Brown died in 1925 and a full civic memorial service was held in Preston Parish Church.



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