17/05/2016

Peter Edwards 1889-1983 - a forgotten medical pioneer from Aberystwyth


This is a speech I recently gave at the unveiling of a plaque to Dr Peter Edwards MBE in the grounds of Bronglais Hospital in Aberystwyth

Most of us first became aware of the achievements of Dr Peter Edwards when an article appeared in last May’s edition of Aberystwyth Ego magazine in which local man George Simpson was interviewed. George graphically described the positive effect Dr Edwards had had on his life and how he wanted his achievements to be properly recognised. 

Aberystwyth Town Council then took the issue on, talked to Brongais Hospital, and the result is the modest plaque in the hospital’s new garden which we’re about to unveil.

I should emphasise that Dr Edwards never worked in Bronglais Hospital - the hospital wasn’t built here until 1966 when he would have been 77. He was born just around the corner from here in the house called The Laurels in St David’s Road. He went to school at Ardwyn Grammar, then a further 150 yards away at what is now Llys Ardwyn at the end of St David’s Road, and then he went to Aberystwyth University. 

So, at that stage in his life he hadn’t gone very far from this immediate area. And I’ll come back to how his upbringing here affected the work he went on to do in his life. However, having been to Aberystwyth University, he then went to Edinburgh University and things changed from there.

He was enlisted during the 1st World War, was wounded five times and was eventually discharged in 1917 with TB. And it’s almost certainly this that led to him, having first qualified as a doctor, eventually becoming the superintendant of Cheshire Joint Infirmary which, at that time, specialised in the treatment of tuberculosis and where - I believe - he made such an impression on George Simpson. But George wasn’t the only person that he made an impression on…

I’m going to read a couple of passages that I’ve found describing him and his work which give a flavour of what he achieved and his unique style of achieving it. This one is by Ted Parton, the former head porter at the Cheshire Joint Infirmary from an article on the BBC website in 1999:

“Back in the days before anti-biotics, TB was not just a killer, it was so deeply feared that sufferers were sent away to remote sanatoria for many months and years. During the 30s and 40s, many thousands of sufferers were sent to the Joint Cheshire Sanatorium in Loggerheads in Staffordshire. The sanatorium had 300 beds - and the regime, under the direction of Dr Peter Edwards, was one of 'fresh air and rest'.

"We would wheel all the patient's beds outside into the fresh air, so that they could get the fresh air into their lungs. We would also wheel them out when it was frosty, or in the snow, and the snow would pile up on their beds - but it was thought to be good for them," says Mr Parton. "We would also put sandbags on their chests while they were lying down. Patients could be left out in the elements with sandbags strapped to their chests for hours. The object of the exercise was to give the lungs something to grapple with - to increase their strength and breathing power."

The vast site at Loggerheads was planted, at Dr Edwards' instruction, with pine trees, because he believed they purified the air (something that, we know today, has some truth to it). If the sandbags failed to do the trick, and a patient's condition continued to fail, surgery was considered.

When a patient did get better, he or she was encouraged to take one of a number of designated walks through the sanatorium's own pine forest. "One walk would take half an hour, then you would build up to three quarters of an hour and then an hour," says Mr Parton. A walking patient could take up a job in the kitchens or the grounds.

Although the regime seems fairly primitive by modern standards, it was in its time - in the years between the wars - medically revolutionary and exciting. "It was a marvellous place and its patients have very fond memories of it," says Mr Parton, adding: "In many ways it was like a golden age of looking after people.”

And then anti-biotics made their arrival at the sanatorium in the form of streptomycin. It was integrated into the treatment, and although the fresh air route to recovery was not entirely abandoned, the drug proved a more effective weapon in the fight against the lung disease.

Now, there was more to Peter Edwards’s life than the Joint Cheshire Sanatorium. He played football for Hearts, one of the top two teams in Edinburgh, and was the honorary club doctor for Stoke City. He was consultant for the International Refugee Organisation and he was awarded an MBE by King George VI. And this last short passage, giving another, slightly different, perspective on the kind of person he was, is from the autobiography of Noel Browne, a doctor who worked with Peter Edwards and who eventually became the Irish Health Minister:

“At the Cheshire Joint Sanitorium I was to learn about the imaginative, unorthodox, original diagnostic and care procedures devised by the remarkable, infinitely charming autocrat Dr Peter Edwards. Incredibly he ran a sanatorium staffed almost entirely with former consumptives (that is, sufferers of tuberculosis); everyone there, and even Peter Edwards himself, had all recovered, or were recovering, from tuberculosis. This was unheard of in tuberculosis practice at the time, but Dr Edwards had original and heterodox ideas on virtually every subject you could think of.

“As well as a considerable store of information about the care of tuberculosis, I also learned from Dr Edwards his insistence on the egalitarian values of a good radical Welshman. There was no distinction whatever in his sanatorium between the disparate roles of the hospital staff. We all contributed equally to the struggle to help and to care for our patients. “There were no titles; we all used Christian names. Technicians, nurses, doctors, porters, ambulance drivers, and administrative staff were all on equal terms and co-equal members of a fine club.” 

So, from those two passages, you get something of a feel for Dr Peter Edwards - his imaginative, highly innovative  and groundbreaking approach and his attitudes, which were undoubtedly started by his upbringing in this particular corner of Aberystwyth.

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