Hospital visiting in Whitechapel
My neighbour is in the Royal London Hospital having gallstones removed, so I have been running back and forth to Whitechapel visiting him this week, delivering magazines and charging his mobile phone. One day I had to wait half an hour to see him, so I decided to explore the hospital museum.
To my alarm, the first thing I saw was a collection of conker-sized lumpy gallstones that had been removed from patients and arranged like rare birds’ eggs in a wooden case. Immediately, I began to wonder if my visit to the museum was perhaps a trifle ill-advised in the circumstances. Once I had been told that the skeleton of Joseph Merrick (known popularly as The Elephant Man) is preserved here, but I was relieved to discover that it was not on display.
In fact, the museum is not at all the ghoulish collection I had feared, although the story it witnesses of sickness as a result of poverty and deprivation is enough to dispel any romantic notion of “colourful” East End history that anyone might ever be ill-informed enough to harbour.
Conversely, there is the inspiring story of the hospital itself which, since its foundation as The London Infirmary in 1757 on the present site, is one of real progress in overcoming suffering and disease through the application of medical science. This is where Joseph Merrick found sanctuary in 1886 from those who saw him merely as a freak. Thanks to the humane foresight of the surgeon Frederick Treves, he was able to live out his days here with dignity. I was intrigued to see the hat and hood (pictured above) that is reputed to have been worn by him.
Also, I was touched by the pathos of this painting by Sir John Lavery of the first injured soldier of World War One to be treated at the Royal London Hospital in 1914. I could not help noticing how, in spite of some updating, the ward I where was visiting my neighbour was similar to the one pictured.
After my visit to the museum, I delivered the magazine and the charged mobile to my neighbour, but I never told him about the gallstones.