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The conception and early history of the Birmingham Medical School and the University


Victor Brookes (M 1943)


In the millennium year two institutions with which I have long been involved reached landmarks in their history. This year we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the consecration of Howe Mark Lodge, in which I have spent 33 very happy years. It also marks the Centenary of the University of Birmingham, in the medical faculty of which I received my adult education, and then had the pleasure and great privilege of spending the whole of my professional career as a surgeon and a teacher.


I have long been fascinated by a number of coincidences and interrelated events that have occurred in the development of these two institutions. These even go back to what might be called their preconceptions, which occurred at nearly the same time in the 1820s.


 A significant part of the foundation on which, 75 years later, the University of Birmingham arose.On November 5th 1825 a surgeon in Birmingham by the name of William Sands-Cox announced in the local press that on December 1st he would commence a series of lectures and demonstrations for would be medical students.


The venture proved successful and was extended. It marked the first systematic instruction for medical students in this part of the country. It brought a new dimension to Birmingham rather like Howe Mark did later. By 1828 it had grown to a degree that Sands Cox and his colleagues of the General Hospital founded the Birmingham School of Medicine and Surgery. In 1836 a number of prominent local public men and peers thought that the school had reached a position of eminence, sufficient to solicit Royal Patronage. Such a Memorial signed by them was submitted to King William IV by their leader Earl Howe.


On June 22nd 1836 a reply requested Earl Howe to communicate His Majesty’s acquiescence to become a Patron of the School and that it should be styled the Royal School of Medicine and Surgery in Birmingham. That patronage was continued when Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837. There was however a serious deficiency of clinical facilities in Birmingham. Sands-Cox determined to build a new hospital of a type that would provide such clinical teaching. In 1839 he launched an appeal for funds and in less than one year sufficient money was raised and such a hospital was built in Bath Row in 1840- 1841. It was completed in less than two years from the time of the appeal, a fact unprecedented in the history of any medical charity.


Let me now read to you an excerpt from the official history of the University regarding the laying of the foundation stone on June 18th 1840.


The stone laying ceremony was one of the most imposing the town had ever seen. Birmingham assembled in state with the mayor, magistrates and gentry in a procession headed by ‘martial music’ followed by members of various Masonic lodges with clergy, magistrates, students, lecturers, council and patrons of the School of Medicine. After these came more music and the Warwickshire Provincial Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons and their officers in full regalia with all the insignia of their craft, and finally the Right Worshipful the Provincial Grand Master, Richard, Earl Howe. The procession went from a public repast given to 450 guests at the Town Hall to the site, followed by a large number of spectators and accompanied by the regimental band of the Scots Greys. ‘The Lodges had beautiful effect and the novelty of the sight in Birmingham caused a large influx of visitors from the surrounding hamlets and villages’. There were ten thousand people on the ground. At the close of prayer Earl Howe laid the foundation stone in its bed in accordance with the rules of architecture and with full Masonic ceremony. On April 8th of the same year the Queen directed, in answer to a petition, that ‘Her Majesty will be graciously pleased to grant Her Patronage to the Clinical Hospital at Birmingham and will allow it to be styled ‘The Queen’s Hospital, Birmingham’. Prince Albert accepted the invitation to become President and Earl Howe accepted the office of Vice-President.


The hospital was opened in October 1841 and was the first provincial teaching hospital in England. On 16th July 1843 the medical college founded by Sands-Cox assumed the title of the Queens College of Birmingham and moved into new buildings adjacent to the hospital. Later the hospital was enlarged and in 1850 (about the time Howe-Mark Lodge was being created) Lord Howe laid the foundation stone of its new east wing, and Sands-Cox became the 1st Dean of what was now called the Medical Faculty of Queen’s College. A further extension of the college and hospital, including an outpatient department, was built in 1872 the foundation stone of which was laid on 4th December 1871 by Lord Leigh who had succeeded Lord Howe as Provincial Grand Master of Warwickshire.


In 1892 the Medical Faculty moved from Queen’s College into the new Mason College of Science in Edmund Street. This new joint association made University status virtually inevitable and the University Charter was granted on 24th February 1900.


The University began to move out to a new campus in Edgbaston. The medical faculty moved to a large new medical school and on 3rd October 1938 I was in the first group of students to enter there. The Queens Hospital lasted almost 100 years and closed as a teaching hospital when the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital was opened in 1940-41.


I was among the last groups of students to live and work in the old hospital. It was later reborn as the Birmingham Accident Hospital but the buildings still belonged to the Board of Governors of the Teaching Hospitals. About the time I became an Overseer of Howe Mark Lodge I was appointed to that Board of Governors. When that Board was dissolved about the time I was Master of Howe Mark, the old hospital buildings were vested in a Trust Fund to which 5 Trustees were appointed and I was the only medical representative. In about 1993 it finally closed as a hospital. The foundation stone laid by Lord Howe was removed and handed to a medical charity, the Birmingham Hospital Saturday Fund. A glass time capsule from beneath the stone was also retrieved (presumably laid there by Lord Howe). It contained newspapers of the day, coins of the day and a Masonic scroll I believe giving details of the involvement of the Warwickshire Provincial Grand Lodge with the hospital and college.



I mentioned at the beginning my association with the two institutions. Equally I have long been interested in the association of the two men who together played such a prominent part in their origins. Lord Howe, who obtained Royal patronage for the Birmingham Medical School and who laid the foundation stone of its prominent teaching hospital with Masonic ceremony, and William Sands-Cox, that distinguished surgeon, whose inspiration and single-minded devotedness is connected for posterity with my Alma Mater. His name is honoured by the Sands-Cox Society; I was a founder member of the Society and at present happen to be its longest serving past president.

(Modified from an Address given by Mr. Victor Brookes at the 150th Anniversary of Howe Mark Lodge)





The Queens Hospital, Bath Row, about 1850. 

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