Medical Practice in York

Phrenology Head - York Castle Museum

Medieval York was a death trap.  In any given year the death rate was always higher than the birth rate; the population was only maintained at about 10,000 by continuous immigration into the city.

When you consider the state of its streets and, more importantly, the water supply this should come as no surprise.  Open gutters drained slowly into the River Ouse, which itself was a key source of water for the citizens.  All sorts of other waste was thrown into the river, including the guts of the fish and animals that were butchered to feed the city. 

Plague and other epidemics were regular events over the centuries.

Against this background, surgery was practised by 20 or so registered 'Barber-Surgeons' who had their own Guild.  They cut hair, pulled teeth and carried out major surgical operations.  It took 7 years apprenticeship to become a full member and the Guild records show that apprentices were trained in the importance of the 'humours'in the body and the phases of the moon when treating patients.  The best time for blood-letting (a favoured form of treatment) was decided according to the signs of the zodiac.

For many centuries another popular treatment was 'Touching' by the reigning King or Queen.  This formed an important part of a Royal visit to the City; as late as 1639 King Charles performed the ritual of touching 200 people in York. 

Medieval York was also a hospital city.  There were approximately 500 hospital beds, serving a much wider community than the 10,000 locals.  In practice the hospitals often acted more like hospices, they were religious institutions that prepared the severely ill for their deaths.

The Reformation in 1539 suddenly brought these houses to a close and it was 200 years before another hospital opened in the City.

Although the Corporation employed an official city surgeon from 1614 onwards, it wasn't until 1740 that the York County Hospital opened in a house in Monkgate.  Five years later a purpose-built hospital opened alongside.

The 18th century also saw the arrival of York Lunatic Asylum and the revolutionary 'Retreat' for the care of the mentally ill.

The County Hospital had limited capacity and did not accept responsibility for the poor of the city.  In response the York Dispensary was founded in 1788 by a number of concerned gentlemen, initially it was run from two rooms in the Merchant Adventurer's Hall.  The Dispensary got its own specially built premises on New Street in 1829, from where up to 150 patients a day were issued with medicines.

This rather haphazard mixture of private medicine and local philanthropy continued well into the 20th century.  In 1898 Seebhom Rowntree's famous survey of York poverty revealed a situation where one in four infants died within a year of being born.

The great change, of course, finally came in 1948 with the founding of the National Health Service which fundamentally altered the way medical provision was viewed throughout the country, including in York.