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London's hospital – history at the heart of the community

RLH historic

The Royal London Hospital is one of the best known medical facilities in London, with a history stretching back centuries. Today it is based in a modern building stretching many floors into the sky, the UK’s leading trauma centre and home to the London Air Ambulance. But it was once a very different setting, a fixture of East London since the 1700s, playing a key part in the lives of generations of local residents.

What is now The Royal London traces its history back to a much smaller site in Featherstone Street known as The London Infirmary. Established in 1740, it provided relief for the sick and injured until 1757.

In 1752 the foundation stone of the hospital building on Whitechapel Road was laid with the first patients admitted in 1757. The front portion of the building – then The London Hospital – was completed in 1759, with subsequent extensions – notably the east and west wings – added later.

The hospital grew and by the early 20th century it offered more than 1,000 beds, the largest charitably funded hospital in the country. In 1948 it came under the control of the newly formed National Health Service.

Throughout its history, the hospital has had a close connection to the teaching of medicine, playing host to many thousands of doctors in training through the years. The earliest pupils walked the wards as far back as the 18th century. In 1785 the first lecture theatre was built, the forerunner to today’s classrooms at the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, part of Queen Mary University.

The London Hospital became The Royal London after being granted the title by HM Queen Elizabeth II in 1990. At the time it remained in its historic home facing onto Whitechapel Road, an iconic building that has stood the test of time and that will soon form the heart of the new Tower Hamlets Town Hall.

Construction work on the hospital’s new home started in 2007, opening in time for the London Olympics in 2012. The queen returned in 2013 to perform the official opening.

Moments in time

Joseph Merrick – known by many as ‘the elephant man’ – was allowed to remain a resident at the hospital until his death in 1890.

In 1925, one of its surgeons, Sir Henry Souttar, completed a heart operation that was to become the basis for modern heart surgery. He was also the first doctor at the hospital to use radium therapy to treat cancer patients.

The hospital played a major role in treating the wounded from both World Wars.

In 1989, the hospital was a key partner in the founding of the London Air Ambulance which to this day is based on a helipad on the roof of the new building.