Feature Christmas 2010: History

Acting on evidence

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c5168 (Published 14 December 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c5168
  1. John Powell, associate clinical professor in epidemiology and public health
  1. 1Health Sciences Research Institute, Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK
  1. Correspondence to: john.powell{at}warwick.ac.uk

How the BMJ archive was used to raise three ghosts of The London Hospital

The arrogant junkie surgeon, the maverick heart throb, and the pioneering genius: it could be a roll call for the medical department of any teaching hospital. Casualty 1909 was a BBC1 drama series (14 June–19 July 2009) set in The London Hospital in Edwardian times. The series made extensive use of the BMJ archive to construct convincing medical storylines from the first decade of the twentieth century, and to put flesh on the bones of the principal medical characters, who were based on real doctors of the period.

Fig 1 One of the prosthesis artists puts the finishing touches to a perforated femoral vein. With permission from Stone City Films

Henry Percy Dean

In 1909, Henry Percy Dean was a surgeon and teacher of operative surgery at The London Hospital.1 As his obituary in the BMJ noted, Dean was a brilliant medical student at University College London1 and became one of the leading figures in the introduction of spinal anaesthesia, authoring a classic paper on the use of stovaine in the BMJ of 1906.2 The sentiment of this paper was succinctly paraphrased in Dean’s line, as used in the BBC series: “Observe how the possibility of surgical shock previously common in abdominal surgery has been all but eliminated by the use of stovaine anaesthesia via lumbar injection.” Unfortunately Dean’s predilection for tropane alkaloids extended beyond his professional practice and his cocaine addiction became an open secret at The London.

Sir Arthur Keith, responding to the announcement of Dean’s death, gave this revealing portrait in a letter to the BMJ of 1931: “If he had fulfilled the promise which we who were associated with him at the London Hospital thirty-five years ago perceived, he would have died …

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