One of the country’s oldest medical societies is evolving to meet the needs of today’s health practitioners, finds Jenni Ameghino.

It seems hard to believe, as you make your way around the elegant, wood-panelled library of the Birmingham Medical Institute, that the intense eyes observing you from the large portrait on the wall are actually those of a hobbit.

Yet their owner, ‘Joseph’ Sampson Gamgee – distinguished Victorian surgeon and inventor of the Gamgee surgical dressing – was immortalised as one of the diminutive, hairy-toed occupants of The Shire; having posthumously given his name to Froddo Baggins’s loyal companion Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings.

According to JRR Tolkien’s published personal letters, the author took the hobbit’s name from the Birmingham colloquialism for cotton wool; the soft and dry Gamgee Tissue having become widely relied upon in European medicine following its success in combating infection during the Crimean War, in which Gamgee tended the battlefield wounded in his hospital in Malta.

Later, as a surgeon at the then Queen’s Hospital in Bath Row, Edgbaston, Sampson Gamgee championed the notion of creating a prestigious medical library for the city; a forum where medics could meet, establish their headquarters, debate serious issues of the day and carry on their research activities.

The BMI opened in 1875, aided by the benevolence of General Hospital physician Dr Fabian Evans. Housed first at Queen’s College in 1880 it moved to Edmund Street. Another move, in 1924, saw it relocated to Great Charles Street before it settled into its present Edgbaston home in 1957.

As a medical charity – which it remains – the BMI quickly developed into the region’s foremost centre for postgraduate medical education, going on to become a focus for the heritage of the history of medicine, the independent headquarters of medical practitioners in the West Midlands and a popular social centre for doctors and allied professions. Events and meetings covered the spectrum of medical specialisms.

Today, the institute can boast to be one of the oldest medical societies in the UK, and one of only three to retain its own premises. Standing on the corner of Harborne Road, the imposing white building forms part of the Calthorpe Estate. The regional offices of the British Medical Association and the Birmingham Local Medical Committee are both to be found here. The institute is governed by an elected council led by president, Dr Ian McKim Thompson, and has nine members of staff. The BMI will also shortly become the Midlands Regional Centre of the Royal Society of Medicine.

In its early years, the library was stocked by generous local doctors. It went on to provide standard textbooks and periodicals and to be a repository for numerous archives. A substantial donation from the Birmingham Hospital Saturday Fund – another of Gamgee’s legacies – funded many more volumes. Now exclusively a reference library, it was officially named ‘The Sampson Gamgee Library for the History of Medicine’ in 2005 and, with its 12,000 volumes, continues to support the work of those studying the history of medicine in the city and far beyond. An online catalogue is nearing completion.

These days, the eyes of Birmingham’s original hobbit look out on a rather different scene from that with which Gamgee might have been familiar.

Having once had the atmosphere of a rather staid gentleman’s club, the BMI is now shaking off its stuffy image of yesteryear to embrace the modern age, and the needs and wishes of today’s expanding register of users.

Under the leadership of its new director Robert Arnott, the institute is undergoing a renaissance. An ambitious programme of refurbishment is underway, which promises to retain the establishment’s proud heritage while giving it a bold and contemporary new profile.

“We are bringing our extensive facilities up to date both for members and to provide for the changing needs of postgraduate medical education, particularly in the field of the revalidation of medical practitioners and much more,” he explains. “My mission in the last 12 months has been to drag the institute into the 21st century and, with the support of the staff and the council, this we are achieving.”

As part of the changes, the BMI’s 500-strong – and growing – membership is benefiting from the installation of the latest digital technology and upgraded facilities.

The Solomon Wand Room is a designated training venue offering clear-beam project technology, computer links and in the future, video-conferencing. This year has also seen the return of the institute’s popular monthly dinner talks by well-known names, in a programme that is being expanded to include lunchtime events as well.

Now retired, the Birmingham-based ophthalmic surgeon Michael Roper-Hall has been a member of the BMI for many years, as was his father, and now serves on the governing council.

He describes how the institute’s tireless efforts in postgraduate education suffered as a result of NHS postgraduate centres being established in each of the districts of Birmingham. “Nowadays, it is interesting to see how things are coming full circle as the centres are looking to the BMI again for this purpose.”

Sampson Gamgee would be touched to know the ‘fellowship’ lives on.

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