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The Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford from 1905 was the acclaimed physician Sir William Osler. His enthusiasm for bedside clinical training, combined with the demand for practicing doctors generated by World War I, meant that from the early 20th century, medical students increasingly received their clinical teaching at Oxford.

During this period, many celebrated scientists came to teach at Oxford, including the noted neurophysiologist Charles Scott Sherrington, who was appointed Waynflete Professor of Physiology in 1913. While at Oxford, Sherrington kept hundreds of microscope slides in a specially constructed box, including many related to original breakthroughs such as cortical localization in the brain. Many of Sherrington's slides, and those of the anatomist Wilfrid Le Gros Clark, have been digitized in a project led by the Department of Physiology Anatomy and Genetics (DPAG) and Medical Sciences Division Learning Technologies (MSDLT)View the slides.

In the years following the war, two new pre-clinical departments – The Department of Biochemistry, and the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology – opened, and clinical teaching advanced thanks to huge donations from the millionaire and philanthropist William Morris (who had been a patient of Sir William Osler). Morris (later Lord Nuffield) was the force behind Morris Motors, one of the largest car manufacturing companies in the world; by the middle of the 20th century, the company employed over 28,000 workers at its Cowley Road factory. In 1929, Nuffield donated £100,000 to establish a new maternity home at the Radcliffe Infirmary, and to buy the buildings and grounds of the Radcliffe Observatory (the observatory itself was moved to South Africa). 

Maternity home© Wellcome Images

The gates of the new maternity home, funded by Lord Nuffield. Image courtesy of Wellcome Images

The Nuffield Institute of Medical Research was opened on this site in 1935, and by 1939 had become an official postgraduate clinical school. Chairs known as the Nuffield Professors were established in Medicine, Surgery, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Anaesthetics, and Orthopaedic Surgery. Departments in each field developed quickly, offering both clinical training and the opportunity to conduct outstanding research. 

While the clinical medical school established by Nuffield’s donation was intended to remain purely postgraduate, in 1939 it began to accept undergraduates who had been evacuated from London teaching hospitals upon the outbreak of the Second World War. Teaching space was established at Somerville College (which had been used as a military hospital during the First World War) for the initial intake of fifty. Other colleges were also co-opted for the war effort, with St Hugh's College becoming a dedicated neurological hospital under the direction of the noted neurosurgeon, and first Nuffield Professor of Surgery, Sir Hugh Cairns.

St Hugh's - Hospital for Head Injuries© Only to be used on MSD within History pages. ‘By kind permission of the Principal and Fellows of St Hugh’s College, Oxford.'’

St Hugh's - Hospital for Head Injuries© By kind permission of the Fellows of St Hugh's college

Nurses and patients at St Hugh's during the Second World War. Photograph available by kind of permission of the Principal and Fellows of St Hugh's College, Oxford. The college has an excellent archive collection of photographs from this era. Please contact the archivist for more information. 

World War II also catalysed the research which brought global fame to the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology. In 1939, William Florey, Ernst Chain and Normal Heatley, along with others at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, began to work on developing penicillin into a stable and usable product. With an ingenious production line, the team enabled the mass production of the drug in time for the last stages of the Second World War. Further success came in 1945, when the chemist Dorothy Hodgkin mapped the molecular structure of penicillin using X-ray crystallography. Fleming, Florey, and Chain shared the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work, and Hodgkin was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964. Read more about the discovery of penicillin on the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology website and on the Oxford Science Blog.

Further advances in the field of antibiotics were achieved at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology by Edward Penley Abraham and Guy Newton, who discovered that the fungus cephalosporin was able to destroy penicillin-resistant bacteria. They were able to develop the fungus into antibiotics for clinical use, and the patent income generated by their achievement enabled the establishment of several charitable trusts for the support of biomedical research. University of Oxford departments and colleges continue to benefit from the money generated by this patent, which has funded several junior research fellowships and laboratories. 

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