New analysis from Oxford hospital cemetery

‘We’ve been able to diagnose tuberculosis, a possible case of leprosy [a rare find for this period], and syphilis.’

Excavations at a 200-year-old cemetery associated with Dr John Radcliffe’s Infirmary on Walton Street in Oxford have unearthed some 400 burials, providing new insights into the practice of medicine in an era before anaesthesia and sterile operating theatres.

The cemetery – in use from 1770 (the year the hospital opened) until 1855 – was investigated by Oxford Archaeology on behalf of the University of Oxford in 2013, prior to the construction of the university’s Blavatnik School of Government. The results of this research have now been published in a new monograph (see details below).

The infirmary was a teaching hospital, run by a board of governors made up of clergymen to treat poor and working-class people, and the cemetery was used to inter individuals from families of little means. ‘I think the cost of transporting your dead relative back to your own parish’s burial ground was probably quite prohibitive for some people,’ osteologist Helen Webb, one of the new publication’s co-authors, told CA.

left Evidence of trepanation and a craniotomy.
Evidence of trepanation and a craniotomy. IMAGE: Oxford Archaeology.

Certainly, the burials excavated by Oxford Archaeology were fairly humble – the team found corroded iron nails, simple grips, and a few breastplates, testifying to simple coffins, but they were respectfully organised into distinct rows with little intercutting, despite the lack of markers, Helen said.

Following excavation, the skeletal remains were examined off-site. ‘This involved laying each skeleton out in full anatomical position, assessing the condition of the remains, finding out demographic details, and estimating the individual’s stature through analysis of metrical data,’ Helen said. ‘We then went on to look at evidence for pathology and trauma.’

All the information was recorded in a bespoke osteology database, and analysed alongside the hospital’s burial and operations registers, which revealed that many infirmary patients had suffered industrial accidents and interpersonal violence, as well as disease. ‘Infection seems to have been quite common,’ Helen said. ‘We’ve been able to diagnose tuberculosis, a possible case of leprosy [a rare find for this period], and syphilis.’

This combined archaeological and documentary research, moreover, allowed the researchers to identify one of the skeletons as that of William Waterstone, who was killed while working as a fireman on the railway. They also found evidence of amputations, trepanning, and perhaps the earliest excavated evidence of a sacrectomy (removal of the sacrum, a triangular bone at the base of the spine).‘They were carrying out quite advanced and radical procedures,’ Helen said.

Most strikingly, however, the Radcliffe appears to have been run differently to other contemporary institutions, where the removal of body parts by anatomists for teaching and research was common practice. (This has been observed in excavated burials associated with the Royal London Hospital, for example.) ‘We were expecting to find a lot more incomplete skeletons,’ Helen said. But, although the Radcliffe was a teaching hospital, its involvement in this kind of activity seems to have been limited and unobtrusive, using remains arising from surgery and post-mortem investigations. ‘This sets the Radcliffe Infirmary apart from other hospital assemblages,’ Helen said. ‘It is known that the governors of the Radcliffe hospital were strongly opposed to anatomisation, and this seems to have been observed here. Patients were allowed their dignity in death.’

For the full results, see The Patients’ Story – Dr Radcliffe’s Legacy in the Age of Hospitals: excavations at the 18th-19th-century Radcliffe Infirmary Burial Ground, Oxford (Oxford Archaeology).