University of Birmingham’s Blue Plaque Trail
Clare Mullett, University Curator
Carved in stone over the main entrance to the University of Birmingham’s Aston Webb building, in the nine portrait statues of great figures from the worlds of art, philosophy, science and industry, is Joseph Chamberlain’s vision for the University: ‘A school of universal instruction, not confined to any particular branch of knowledge but taking all knowledge in its province.’ These guardians watch over those who pass beneath, reminding them that the University is part of a living tradition of culture and learning.
Since its earliest days, the University of Birmingham has been a home to pioneers who have changed the world we live in. From the sciences to the arts, their groundbreaking achievements have been recognised and honoured at every level, including the Nobel Prize.
The University’s Blue Plaque trail, modelled on schemes adopted in many British cities, demonstrates how Chamberlain’s vision has been realised. It celebrates those who have helped shape our heritage as a research university and showcases the University’s broad cultural offer and its range of unique museum artefacts and archives.
The University saw the birth of inventions such as the Cavity Magnetron used in radar and microwave ovens which changed the world as we knew it. The feasibility of the atomic bomb, secrets of particle physics, mathematical analysis of Bessel functions and the mass of the earth were all discovered here. Furthermore, the work of the
University’s geologists has helped us to understand climate change and the formation of mountain belts.
Health and life expectancy
Health and life expectancy throughout the world has been improved through the work of the University of Birmingham, with developments such as the variable-rate heart pacemaker, pioneering experiments in skin grafting, the synthesis of Vitamin C, and the obstetrical ‘flying squads’ of Hilda Lloyd.
Social policy improvement, investigation into economic reform, and innovative town planning involving such individuals as Margery Fry, Sir William Ashley, Francois Lafitte and John Sutton Nettlefold have also greatly enhanced the quality of life worldwide.
Composers, musicians and writers
Composers, musicians and writers of the stature of Sir Edward Elgar, Louis MacNeice and David Lodge, have taught at the University of Birmingham; Sir Granville Bantock helped found the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; and new critical areas of academic study were developed here by Nikolaus Pevsner in the history of industrial art and design, Professor John Sinclair in corpus linguistics, and the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the study of ‘mass’ culture.
“Outside the Medical School ...”
Outside the Medical School, the blue plaques mark the achievements of Dame Hilda Lloyd, Leon Abrams and Ray Lightwood. Here are the excerpts from the trail.
Dame Hilda Lloyd
Dame Hilda Lloyd, Professor of Obstetrics saved many through her midwife ‘flying squads’ set up in 1936.
Hilda Lloyd became the first female professor at the University of Birmingham in 1944 and the first female President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 1949. Passionate about working to alleviate the symptoms of poverty that led to the deaths of many poor pregnant women, one of her many accomplishments was pioneering the use of obstetrical ‘flying squads’ in Birmingham.
Hilda Nora Lloyd (née Shufflebottom) was born in Birmingham and educated at King Edward Vl High School. She entered Birmingham Medical School and qualified in 1916, at a time when around 40% of medical graduates at the University were female due to WWI.
After further training and junior posts in London, Lloyd returned to Birmingham as a resident in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Maternity and Women’s hospitals. She qualified as a surgeon in 1920.
After rising through the ranks, becoming a lecturer in 1934, professor in 1944 and chair of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in 1946, she served on planning committees for blood transfusion and radiotherapy, the hospital governing board, NHS maternity committee and the advisory board for the Royal College of Nursing.
Local engagement led to national recognition and in 1949, after overcoming considerable opposition, she was elected by her male peers to be the first female President of a Royal Medical College, at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Despite this initial opposition, her ability, charm and tact led to two unanimous re-elections.
Lloyd was interested in practical solutions and one of the major innovations she introduced was the use of obstetrical ‘Flying Squads’ in 1936. The Birmingham ‘Flying Squads’ combined obstetrical care with the capacity to carry out emergency resuscitation and, most crucially, blood transfusion. The team generally consisted of an obstetrician who was skilled at resuscitation, a midwife and a nursing student, travelling in an ambulance equipped with transfusion supplies. Whilst the majority of each flying squad’s time was spent dealing with deliveries and post-natal emergencies, they also dealt with complications surrounding abortion. Given its illegal status, back street abortions or self-aborting led to a significant proportion of deaths. The ability to provide emergency care and transfusions at the scene therefore saved the lives of many women.
Whilst childbirth in the UK today is a relatively safe event, this has not always been so. Since the 1950s, the ‘Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths’ have
collected information about why mothers die in pregnancy and childbirth. Lloyd was one of an influential group of obstetricians and midwives whose work led to the initiation of such a ground breaking audit.
Leon Abrams and Ray Lightwood
Leon Abrams and Ray Lightwood developed and implanted the first variable rate pacemaker in 1960.
Cardiothoracic Surgeon, Leon Abrams and Medical Engineer, Ray Lightwood developed and implanted the first patient controlled variable rate heart pacemaker. It was subsequently developed as a commercial pacemaker with the support of the electronic engineering company Joseph Lucas Ltd of Birmingham.
Development of the pacemaker started in response to the high mortality associated with slow heart rates after open heart surgery. Abrams and colleagues at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital realised that such a device would also be of value in patients with slow heart rates arising from other causes.
Above: Original mock up of pacemaker.
Right: Early commercial Lucas model.
With Abrams and Lightwood’s use of electrodes attached to the heart coupled to an external pacemaker, they were able to keep all the electronic components outside the body, and could replace in the (highly likely) event of failure.
The primary circuit consisted of an inducing coil supplied by a portable device which produced short pulses at adjustable intervals and intensity. This was, therefore, the first rate-adaptive (patient controlled) permanent pacemaker.
The first implant took place in March 1960, with two further implants in April 1960. These three patients made good recoveries and returned to a high quality of life. By 1966, 56 patients had undergone implantation with one surviving for over 5½ years.
In 2002, there were still three surviving pacemaker patients within Birmingham whose first pacemaker system had been of the Lucas-Abrams type.
The original device used four 9 volt dry batteries. The commercial Lucas-Abrams device was introduced in 1964 and used a single 1.5 volt battery, lasting approximately one month. Patients were able to change the battery themselves and were issued with two devices to cover the event of failure.
Other projects that Ray Lightwood was involved in include an electronic fibrillator, the prosthetic blood vessel and a pain inhibiting pulser. Leon Abrams developed an artificial heart valve which was in regular use for many years.
The use of pacemakers to improve heart function in patients with severe heart failure is now the subject of a number of research projects held jointly between the College of Medical and Dental Sciences and University Hospital Birmingham.
The scope and scale of individual and collective achievements at the University of Birmingham are remarkable, and the blue plaques around its campus serve as reminders of the immense accomplishments of men and women who have worked here in the past.
We hope they will inspire those who pass by and will encourage yet greater achievement in the future. Although the University’s Blue plaque trail is complete,
if you would like to suggest other achievements of international importance that we might be able to celebrate, please do get in touch.
The Blue Plaque trail is available to download here: