History of Health in Inverurie

There is a long history of settlement in and around Inverurie, the earliest evidence being the flint smiddies at Ardtannes and the Bass. Later there were the people who buried their dead in stone cists, followed by those who cremated their dead in urns, often associated with Stone Circles, of which there are many in the district. Evidence of pathology, such as abscesses, healed breaks of bones etc can be found by studying skeletal remains. Treatments can only be guessed at but flints were sharp enough to open abscesses, and trephining (boring a hole in the skull) was practiced. Herbs came to be recognised as treatments for various maladies and when the monks settled at Polinar Church on the banks of the River Don, they would have been consulted when illness struck.

It was not so much the healer’s skill in prescribing which allowed people to survive – more likely a stout constitution. It would appear that “skeely” men or women such as the minister or laird’s wife could concoct even more weird medicines than the physician. Live snails, crab’s eyes or blue bottles amongst equally revolting ingredients were considered to be of therapeutic benefit. Bleeding was popular as late as the 19th century and was prescribed for a wide variety of ailments from broken bones to consumption (tuberculosis).

The conditions under which the inhabitants lived were primitive, even 150 years ago, their house walls being of rough stones a few feet high, heightened by divots and thatched with heather or straw on rough wooden beams. The house gable was facing the highway with all manner of rubbish and filth dumped on the street, necessitating the bye-laws in 1653 and 1866 to ensure that peat stacks and middens could no longer be on the highway. In 1866 the street outside the present Health Centre was particularly offensive, as it had an open sewer laid along its surface, draining into the nearby Overburn.

By 1872, with the population reaching 2,500, something had to be done, and so sewers were laid to a filter bed on the bank of the River Don a short distance downstream from the Don Bridge. This soon became totally inadequate for the growing number of inhabitants and the raw sewage flowed freely into the river for many years before the present sewage works opened in 1965.

The first hospital in the area was the “Hospital of Balhalgardy”, mentioned in Dr Davidson’s book, and it was in existence in 1651. It was devoted to the care of the aged, had two chambers and one mid room, holding four poor men who each received a peck of meal and half a peck of malt weekly. The definition of “hospital” was “a charitable institution” rather than a place for treating patients.

Epidemics raged over Scotland throughout the centuries, the Black Plague beginning in 1350 and recurring till 1648. Inverurie was quarantined for six months in 1647 because of the plague. Infectious diseases, such as diphtheria, cholera, scarlet fever, measles and whooping cough which are now well controlled, contributed to the chronic morbidity and heavy death toll in the population. In 1848 a severe epidemic of scarlet fever, was associated with many deaths. Smallpox waxed and waned, the epidemic of 1808 being particularly severe. The Garioch Medical Association were sufficiently concerned to discuss smallpox, and it was the outbreak in three families in North Street which stimulated the Town Council to purchase the Garioch Inn (133-135 North Street) as a ten-bedded hospital in 1872.

In 1895 several neighbouring Councils cooperated to build an eighteen bedded isolation hospital in Cuninghill Road, on the site of Hanover House, the local doctors sharing the duties of treating the patients. Again, the records show that scarlet fever outbreaks occurred regularly, and so that in 1902, 125 cases were admitted, the crowding being such that, on occasions, a bed was shared “top and tail” by two children. This may not seem many admissions for the year but the length of stay in hospital could be from six to twelve weeks because of ear or chest complications which are now effectively controlled with antibiotics.

The ambulance prior to motorised vehicles was horse-drawn black cab with yellow frosted windows, known as the “fever bad” driven by James Dey or “Paddy” as he was affectionately known.

The Cuninghill Road hospital closed in 1940, the patients being transferred to the new County Infectious Diseases Hospital in Upperboat Road, built by Aberdeenshire County Council and which accepted patients with a wide range of infectious diseases from Aberdeenshire. The two single storied wards were occupied by tuberculosis patients who required many months of treatment supervised by visiting physicians from the City Hospital, Aberdeen. As there was a wide variety of infectious diseases, Inverurie Hospital was designated a teaching hospital for nurses, who could gain the RFN qualification.

In the late 1940s child immunisation and new treatments with streptomycin and isonisaid for tuberculosis saw a dramatic decrease in infectious diseases and bed occupancy, so the single storeyed wards were redesignated in 1958, twelve in each ward as general practitioner beds for patients of practitioners in Inverurie and nearby practices, and ten long stay geriatric beds in each ward, attended by geriatric consultants from Aberdeen. In 1983, another ward for psychogeriatric patients was built.

Traditionally, confinements were undertaken at home, with the assistance of a “howdie wife”, later the district nurse and general practitioner. The only maternity hospital until after 1920 was in Aberdeen, and admission was usually a hazardous event, as post partum infection could be fatal. The Inverurie doctors attended confinements at the patient’s home, performing on occasions difficult obstetric procedures, which at the time was accepted medical practice. Gradually in the 1930s hospital deliveries became safer, and the small cottage hospitals with maternity wards scattered over the North-East became popular. Inverurie did not get a maternity unit until 1963, a ten bedded facility with a labour suite in the ground floor of the two storeyed block. Pregnant women had to travel to Insch, Huntly or even Torphins maternity units. By the 1960s domiciliary confinements were few in number, and the number of hospital deliveries at Inverurie gradually dropped over the ensuing years. Despite a spirited public campaign to retain the maternity unit for post natal patients, the unit was closed in April 1989. The building has been demolished and the site is now a car park.

The general practitioners in Inverurie traditionally consulted from their own homes, the surgery and waiting room being part of the house. Consulting “hours” were three times daily, including Saturday, continuing until all the patients were seen. The doctor took a half day weekly. To be seen, the patient rang the door bell and was shown to the waiting room by the maid. Before the advent of the telephone, a night call necessitated walking to the doctor’s home and rousing the household. At the surgery in West High Street, there was a tube from the surgery door to the doctor’s bedroom above for callers to speak to the doctor at night. Now “G-MEDS” operates the out-of-hours cover for emergencies, the doctors of several practices sharing the duties on a rota basis as the number of calls has escalated. There is a driver and the vehicle is distinctively marked with a green and white diced band.

After World War Two, the servants were gradually replaced with receptionists, who became a necessity after the introduction of the NHS in 1948 to cope with the increase in consultations, telephone calls and paperwork. Out of hours, the doctor’s wife answered the telephone. When it was intimated that the Railway Works were to close in the late sixties, a large drop in the population was expected, and so a merger with the Kintore practice was agreed by the partners. With the discovery of North Sea oil in 1970 the decrease did not occur, and as the numbers of patients and general practitioners increased so did the range of services available. The two surgery premises at 30 West High Street and 80 West High Street became overcrowded and inadequate for the doctors, especially as district nurses, health visitors and practice nurses were working in the practice premises as well.

In 1967, discussions were initiated by the Aberdeenshire County Council to plan the building of a Health Centre to incorporate all health services in Inverurie, and after six years of discussion and planning, the Health Centre became operational on the 5th of March 1973 in Constitution Street on the site of the Railway Hall. The two practices continued to retain their individual identities until 1st of April 1977 when they merged to become the Inverurie Medical Group. The number of patients in the doctors’ lists at that time was 12,160 and in 1999 it was 16,500.

The premises were enlarged and refurbished in 1993 to accommodate the nine partners and over sixty nursing and clerical staff who were now working in the Health Centre. The range and sophistication of the services delivered from the Centre have changed out of all recognition compared to those offered by a general practitioner fifty years ago, with advice and treatment available from nurses and health visitors. Minor surgical operations are performed allowing speedier treatment of the patients and assisting in the shortening of hospital waiting lists.

The complexity of such a busy centre involved business skills to deliver the best and most efficient care for patients. The Centre is networked with the computers being linked with other centres throughout the North East, so facilitating communications between practices and hospitals. The advent of computers means that the staff have to be trained in their use. In 1996 and 1999 the Health Centre gained the Investors In People National Standard Award for staff training and development.

The community hospital is bringing care closer to the community, because treatments such as dehydrating or transfusing patients can be undertaken and the Inverurie Hospital Cardiology Assessment Unit allows expeditious investigations of heart problems, saving patients having the journey to Aberdeen Hospitals.

Today the Practice list size is currently over 22,500 and rising. The Practice has 20 GPs and 49 Practice employed staff. In addition to this,  the Community staff are housed in different buildings. We are looking forward to the opening of our new Health Centre in the Spring of 2018.