Nicola here, talking today about the influence of Dr John Radcliffe on the beautiful city of Oxford. I’m fortunate enough to live only 20 miles from the “City of the dreaming spires” and I visit it as often as I can. The sense of history in Oxford is all pervasive and very inspiring and last month I had an extra-special treat; a tour of two of Oxford’s most iconic buildings, The Radcliffe Infirmary and the Radcliffe Observatory.
Dr John Radcliffe was an English physician, politician and academic. He was born in 1652 in Yorkshire and educated at Oxford University from the age of 13. He rose to become court physician to William and Mary and is buried in Oxford. When he died he left £40k in his will, which was used to endow a library and other academic projects in the city. Amongst the buildings constructed with funds from his estate was a new quadrangle for University College, and also the Radcliffe Camera, which housed the university’s science library.
The Radcliffe Infirmary, which opened in 1770, was Oxford’s first hospital. It was the site of the first use of penicillin to treat infections (1941), the first British accident service, and the first “midwifery flying squad” to go to the aid of mothers in difficulty during childbirth. When we visited we went in by the “patients’ door,” the way that patients and staff and entered for 250 years. Patrons and board members had a grand flight of stairs to enter via the first floor. That way they avoided both the staff and the sick! We were given a tour of the boardrooms where the details of all the patrons, donors and members are still recorded for posterity with details of their generosity.
On the third floor was the operating theatre. I was curious as to why this was on the top floor, which would necessitate the patients being winched up from the wards two floors below (the hooks for the pulley system were still visible in the landing!) This can’t have been at all comfortable for anyone but particularly those who were very ill.
However the explanation made perfect sense: The natural light and ventilation was so much better on the top floor and therefore made operations easier to perform.
These days the Radcliffe Infirmary houses Oxford’s Humanities Department so the wards and nurses’ quarters are gone, but much of the original architecture remains with so many hints of the building’s previous life and purpose.
After visiting the Radcliffe Infirmary we walked up the road to the Radcliffe Observatory, which is now a part of Green Templeton College. In the mid 18th century Thomas Hornsby, professor of astronomy at Oxford, petitioned the trustees of John Radcliffe’s estate to provide money for an astronomical observatory. The building was completed in 1773 and paid a pivotal role in the developing science of astronomy but not only was it a site of great learning, it is also one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen.
Based on the design of the Tower of the Winds in Athens, the observatory is an octagonal tower sitting above a semi-circular entrance hall with two side rooms. The exterior is exquisitely engraved with stone reliefs of the four winds above and plaques of the zodiac below. At the top of the tower is the magnificent observing room whilst the floor below housed other mathematical instruments and there were teaching rooms on the ground floor.
In 1781 the use of telescopes became popular and the Tower Room was ideal, as small instruments could be moved out through the windows onto the balconies. The observatory was still ranked in the top four worldwide in 1820.
On our tour we climbed right to the top of the observing room, a vertiginous climb up a narrow flight of metal stairs to the very top of the gallery. There were fabulous views out across the city and you could imagine that before the days of light and other pollution it would have been a great spot from which to observe the heavens. The Tower of the Winds has been restored to its 18th century glory and the gallery is painted entirely in three shades of grey, which was intended to draw out the light and shadow of the original design. It was truly spectacular and as a final treat we took afternoon tea in the Common Room on the ground floor before strolling through the pretty landscaped gardens.