Dr A.G. Malcolm published a book in 1851 called “History of the General Hospital.” It is amazing to see how the medical care in Belfast grew from such humble roots and with the determination and tenacity of a relatively small number of men and women. The infirmary at the Poor House was the only medical relief in Belfast until The Dispensary opened in 1792. The signatories of the Dispensary Notice included Valentine Jones, Waddell Cunningham and Robert Holmes, all of whom were members of the Belfast Charitable Society.
The Dispensary had closed around 1795/6. A meeting was held in 1798 to find out if it should be revived. Property was sought by Henry Joy, Robert Holmes and William Clarke for a new Dispensary and Fever Hospital. Once the new premises were located on Factory Row and operational, an agreement was made that all medicines required by the Poor House Infirmary were to be supplied and paid for by the Dispensary and Fever Hospital. This arrangement was not without its difficulties, but because of the personalities involved and the fact that many of them belonged to both charitable organisations, they were able to smooth out any issues which occurred.
In 1806 there were only nineteen physicians and surgeons working in the town of Belfast. Many of them were exceptionally generous with their time and skills, donating both to the new philanthropic medical facilities opening in 19th Century Belfast. Not only did they provide the necessary skills, but in many cases they were the driving forces behind providing healthcare for the sick and poor of Belfast.
In the case of the Belfast Charitable Society, the medical care it provided in the Poor House and the Infirmary was provided by many of the doctors based in Belfast at the time, free of charge. One family, the Purdon’s deserve a special note of admiration for their work with the Belfast Charitable Society. No fewer than eight Dr Purdons attended the House and Infirmary in an unbroken run from 1804 until 1947.
Later as we see the Lying-In hospital being developed names such as Lady Harriet Skeffington, were heavily involved in both the Poor House and the new facility. The first Lying-In Hospital was first opened in 1794 in a house rented to them by the Belfast Charitable Society in Donegall Street. The Lying-In Hospital was redeveloped in 1829 on land owned by the Belfast Charitable Society.
As research has shown, it was small groups of philanthropic families and physicians that were the catalysts for change in Belfast and it is a fascinating journey to trace how the same people appear on the Boards and in the minutes of so many charitable institutions.