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Photo of the Radcliffe Primary Care Building taken from the Woodstock Road. © Nick Kane

Last weekend we opened our doors for the very first time to members of the public as part of the Oxford Preservation Trust’s Oxford Open Doors programme. Having refurbished the former Radcliffe Infirmary’s once dilapidated Outpatients’ Building, we were keen to show off its new light and airy interior and some of the period features that were retained during the transformation from hospital to modern office.

It was with slight trepidation that we unlocked the doors at 10am on Saturday and bluetacked the “Open” poster to the building’s glass frontage – would we get a just handful of people or more than we could cope with? With freshly brewed coffee to tempt passers-by and a team of six staff and volunteers waiting to welcome them, we breathed a sigh of relief as the first few people walked through the door, eager to take themselves off on a self-guided tour and explore our three floors.

Over the next three hours almost 350 people passed through our foyer, some gingerly as they recounted memories of hospital visits in decades gone by, others with excitement and intrigue to see what had become of the building they once worked in as a hospital porter, neurologist, secretary or clinical pharmacologist.

Originally opened in 1913, the Radcliffe Infirmary’s Outpatients’ building saw its fair share of historic firsts during its 95 years of operation. Utilising all the latest health technology of the day, and ground-breaking approaches to modern medicine, the outpatients’ department boasted a casualty operating theatre, several consultation rooms, chapel of rest, pathology laboratory as well as electrotherapeutic, X-ray and ENT departments. In 1941, it was the site of the first use of penicillin in a human as well as the UK’s first accident service, which operated out of the former dispensary and two recovery rooms.

Those who knew the building well in more modern times before its closure in 2007 seemed impressed with the architectural developments and were keen to share their memories and enthusiasm with each other and our team of volunteers. The building echoed with tales of “my mother was born here!”, “this is where the entrance to the sexual health clinic was, it was separate to the rest of the hospital”, “I had my very own parking space”, “it used to be such a dingy rabbit warren”, “people didn’t have to wait long for an appointment”, and “that kitchen used to be our sluice room” as former patients, visitors and hospital staff embarked on a memory tour of life in an NHS outpatients’ department.

The open day provided us with an ideal opportunity to not only talk about the building and the current primary care research in our department, but also of the role for members of the public in assisting with our research as a patient or public contributor. Lynne Maddocks, our PPI Coordinator, was inundated with questions and signed up four new volunteers, with many taking away a leaflet to consider it.

After several pots of coffee and an almost depleted stack of tour guides, at 1pm we closed our doors on what had been an exhausting three hours, but none-the-less rewarding. For me, taking part in Open Doors and hearing our visitors’ nostalgia brought the history of our building back into clear focus, something that’s perhaps easy to lose sight of since it’s reincarnation as the shiny, glass-fronted Radcliffe Primary Care Building. As I cleared away the information posters and took a final look around I realised that we’re not just new occupants with a fresh purpose to improve healthcare, we’ve taken on the stewardship of a significant piece of history, and along with it people's memories and real-life experiences of 20th century healthcare. 

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