Tag Archives: Westminster Hospital

Surgery behind the scenes at Buckingham Palace

Katie Maggs, Curator of Medicine blogs on a rather special surgery performed at the Palace.   

One of the amazing things about working at the Science Museum is the number of extraordinary people you get to meet who give a unique insight into our collections. A few days ago I made a trip to the South Coast to interview Sarah Minter – a retired nurse and spritely 96 year old. Not only has she lived through some incredible changes within medicine during her career, she played a vital role in a high-profile operation performed on this table displayed in our Health Matters Gallery – more than 60 years ago.

Adjustable operating table by the Genito Urinary Manufacturing Co., London, 1950s. At the time this operating table was the latest model for chest surgery – multiple attachments helped to better position the patient during surgery. Image credit: Science Museum.

In September 1951, Sarah – then Senior Theatre Sister at Westminster Hospital – was about to go on holiday when Clement Price-Thomas (later Sir) a renowned Chest Surgeon came into her office. After carefully closing the door, he informed her that he had to perform a major chest operation on King George VI – and at the Palace’s insistence the operation would take place at Buckingham Palace. Sarah was tasked with coordinating the equipment and nursing team that would be needed for the operation. Cancelling her holiday, Sarah set to work. Absolute secrecy was essential.

Sarah Minter and her fellow nursing team being thanked by Westminster’s Matron Lavina Young in 1951 for their role in the King’s operation. Sarah started training as a Probationer Nurse at Westminster Hospital in 1939, on a salary of £20.00 paid quarterly. Her responsibilities gradually expanded until she became Divisional Nursing Officer in the 1960s. She retired in 1977.

From sterilising to lighting apparatus - Sarah selected what equipment she could from Westminster’s surgical theatres including the operating table, in order to create a replica theatre inside the Palace. Part of the challenge was to ensure enough of the right surgical equipment remained at the hospital so that operations could continue uninterrupted by what was happening at the Palace.  

Crowds awaiting news of King George VI’s operation outside Buckingham Palace, 1951. The King’s operation began around 10am on the 23rd September 1951. Sarah recalled the thrill of looking out at the crowds from a window in the Palace, as a press notice about the operation was posted to the gates. Image Credit: BBC.

King George VI recovered from the surgery but died later in February 1952. The operating table went back to the hospital into normal usage. Sarah received a signed photograph of the King and Queen thanking her for her part in the procedure. Her name is listed with the members of the surgical team on a stained glass window commemorating King George VI in the chapel of Westminster Hospital.

Speaking with Sarah, I gained a real sense of the professionalism shown by nurses like her and an insight into the conditions in which she was working and the operation which took place. Whilst proud of her part in such notable surgery, it was medical advances Sarah recalled – such as the first dialysis machine used at Westminster Hospital or the shift from being a voluntary to an NHS Hospital – that made more of an impact on her and the patients she cared for.

‘A weapon calling for careful handling’…

February 4th marks World Cancer Day. Alongside surgery, chemotherapy and hormone treatment, radiotherapy has been a mainstay of cancer treatment for well over 100 years. Just weeks after Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of x-rays in 1895, student doctors began experimenting with the mysterious rays to treat cancer, and other conditions such as ringworm.

By the 1920s, x-ray generators weren’t capable of making the intense beams of radiation needed to treat certain tumours. Hospitals turned to experimenting with radioactive materials such as radium.

This strange looking contraption is a radium ‘bomb’. It’s a rather ingenious machine developed at London’s Westminster Hospital for cancer treatment in the early 1930s.  

The 'bomb' - the egg-shaped treatment head pictured on the left – was a lead-lined container for radium that restricted the beam of radiation. It was extremely heavy, and to keep it in position its weight was offset by the counterbalance you see at the bottom. (credit: Science Museum Photo Studio).

Why does it look so odd? Well its designers were faced with several difficult dilemmas – how to deliver treatment to the patient whilst keeping staff safe from radiation exposure? With radium costing over £200,000 an ounce, maximizing the effect of the few grams of radium received on loan from the government, was a critical concern.

Like much experimental medical apparatus, this equipment was made in the hospital’s own workshops. In fact it was made up of bits of bike! Staff could be kept at a safe distance when positioning the ‘bomb’, and to expose the patient’s tumour to the radium – a shutter was operated via a bicycle brake cable.

When not in use, hospitals would keep radium buried in lead-lined chambers – protection that became critical with the impending threat of actual bombs during the Second World War.

Women painting alarm clock faces

Women painting alarm clock faces, Ingersoll factory, January 1932 (Science Museum)

Cancer treatment went on to change rapidly. More powerful radiation sources were developed, such as linear accelerators. Atomic reactors also helped to transform the situation – through producing large amounts of alternative radioactive material such as cobalt-60.