Western General Hospital History


The Western General Hospital, in the north west of Edinburgh, is now a renowned centre for the treatment of cancer and neurological disorders. Yet its success today is built origins can only be described as humble.

The poor house

The Western began not as a hospital, but as a poorhouse, for the parish of St Cuthbert's. It was opened in 1761, on the site of what is now the Caledonian Hotel, at the west end of Princes Street. The poorhouse included a school for orphans, teaching them a trade in the hope that it would lift them out of poverty.

But by the 1860s, there were concerns about the unsanitary conditions at the poorhouse. Henry Littlejohn, the City's Medical Officer, ordered improvements. It was proposed that St Cuthbert's merge with two other poorhouses, Craiglockhart and Canongate. But St Cuthbert's decided against such a move, and instead opened a new facility, Craigleith Hospital and Poorhouse, in 1868.

The hospital continued to care for the poor until 1914, when it was requisitioned by the Army to treat casualties from the First World War. In 1929, parish councils were abolished, and ownership of the poorhouse and hospital was transferred to Edinburgh Town Council in 1930.

The council decided to upgrade the facilities and equip Craigleith as a teaching hospital with 280 beds, with the new name of the Western General Hospital.

The War Years

During the Second World War, hospitals were not flooded with casualties as had been the case in the first conflict. But in 1941, a number of medical specialists and students from the Polish Army arrived in Britain. The exiled president of the Polish Republic officially instituted the Polish School of Medicine in Edinburgh, and part of the Western General was set aside as the Polish, or Paderewski, Hospital, with 120 beds.

Medical students trained at the Paderewski Hospital throughout the Second World War, with the last graduates leaving in 1949.

A modern hospital

After the war, the Western General began to build up a reputation not only for providing general medical and surgical services, but also for a number of specialist units, including heart disease, gastrointestinal medicine, radiotherapy and neurosurgery.

Today the hospital, which cares for 150,000 patients a year, is home to the regional centre for cancer treatment for the south-east of Scotland, and the Department of Clinical Neurosciences provides specialist care to a catchment of 2.4 million people.

Last Reviewed: 01/06/2011