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The History of the Oxford Medical School

Medicine has been taught at Oxford since the thirteenth century, and for several hundred years Oxford was in the forefront of medical education. Its influence reached a peak in the seventeenth century, when the turbulent political atmosphere of London drove many leading scientists to seek a haven in Oxford. William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood, was among their number; others included Thomas Willis, a pioneering neuroanatomist and Christopher Wren, better known for his architectural achievements but who made a number of detailed anatomical drawings while at Oxford.

Museum for the History of ScienceIn the eighteenth century, benefactions of an Oxford trained doctor, John Radcliffe, led to the foundation in 1770 of the Radcliffe Infirmary, one of the first public hospitals to be established outside London. Some years earlier, the Radcliffe Camera was built to house the first library in Oxford dedicated to science.

Sir Henry Acland, who was appointed Regius Professor of Medicine in 1857, launched a renaissance of teaching and research in medicine whose momentum continues to this day. He concentrated on providing a first-class scientific introduct on to medicine. Through his efforts, the University had established departments and professorships in anatomy, Comparative Anatomy and Physiology by the time he retired in 1895. An early holder of the Chair in Physiology was Sir Charles Sherrington, who won the Nobel Prize for his fundamental studies of the nervous system, and many of whose students also became leaders in their fields. At the same time, clinical teaching developed with the arrival of Sir William Osler from Johns Hopkins University to take up the Regius Chair in 1904.

Medical teaching and research advanced rapidly during the 1930s through the initiative of Sir Hugh Cairns, the leading British neurosurgeon of his day, and the generosity of Sir William Morris, later Lord Nuffield. He established the Nuffield Institute for Medical Research in the Radcliffe Observatory, and gave the then colossal sum of £2 million to establish five new chairs in Surgery, Anaesthetics, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Orthopaedic Surgery and Clinical Medicine. Originally, the newly formed clinical school was planned as a postgraduate research development. However, following the evacuation of medical students from London to Oxford during the Second World War, a clinical school for the training of medical students was established at the Radcliffe Infirmary in the post-war period. It has grown steadily in size and its base moved to the John Radcliffe Hospital, which was established in Headington in 1979.

The greatest contribution to medicine made by Oxford researchers during the twentieth century was undoubtedly the development of penicillin by Professor Howard Florey (later Lord Florey), Dr (later Sir) Ernst Chain and their colleagues at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology during the early years of the Second World War. Their Nobel Prize winning work launched the world-wide antibiotics industry, and was followed a decade later by Sir Edward Abraham's discovery of cephalosporin, also at the Dunn School. These discoveries were a vindication of the philosophy that continues to pervade medical research at Oxford; that fundamental scientific research should always provide the basis for advances in clinical practice.

More recent developments and the future


 Over the years clinical teaching has expanded into a network of hospital and community facilities. In addition to hospitals and general practices in Oxford, the district general hospitals in Northampton, Reading and Swindon are major partners in delivering medical and surgical teaching. Milton Keynes hospital is an important site for the new graduate entry course, and students also rotate to High Wycombe and Stoke Mandeville. The base site is the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust which comprises the John Radcliffe Hospital, the Churchill Hospital and the Horton General Hospital in Banbury. The Radcliffe Infirmary which closed in 2006 has been converted for other uses by the University of Oxford. Psychiatric services in Oxford are provided at the Warneford and Park Hospitals, while orthopaedic service are based largely at the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre NHS Trust, which also provides a rehabilitation service and is the main centre for rheumatology and metabolic bone disease.

The Medical Sciences Division has strong research programme. Currently this stretches from the basic biomedical sciences, in direct continuity with the pre-clinical departments, through clinical research at the bedside to research in the community. Basic research is carried out in the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, where the tools of molecular and cell biology are applied to the study of disease, and in the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics which focuses on the inheritance of common disease, structural biology and developmental genetics. Patient orientated research is carried out in all the teaching hospitals and the community. Important new developments include a unit for functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain, a diabetes research and clinical unit, a vaccine centre and a planned new cancer centre. Special emphasis is placed on diseases of the developing world, with tropical medicine research units in Thailand, Vietnam and Kenya. Community-based research encompasses preventative medicine, the development of large scale clinical trials, and various aspects of evidence-based medicine. Activity in this area is currently split between units in the Radcliffe Infirmary and the Institute of Health Sciences in Headington. Units based at the Radcliffe Infirmary will eventually transfer to a new trials and epidemiology building on the south Headington site.