The Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases has been at the forefront of specialist treatment and rehabilitation for complex conditions for over 250 years. Today, we continue to advance our reputation for excellence and innovation.
A unique and specialist trust
Our hospital is one of the oldest specialist hospitals in the UK, having been founded in 1738 as a hospital for the poor in Bath. All the stone for the hospital building was given by Ralph Allen, the entrepreneur famous for his reforms to the UK postal system, from his quarries outside the city. It was Bath’s first hospital, known then as the Bath General Infirmary, and opened its doors in 1742, but initially treatment was only available to people from outside the city. This was because the charitable objective of the hospital was to provide hospital care for the genuinely destitute who had travelled to Bath to seek a cure. A charitable fund was set up to allow patients from outside the city to be admitted and treated at the hospital for a fee which was used to allow them to travel home once recovered. Residents of Bath could gain the benefit of treatment on payment of a small fee.
Over time, the hospital’s national reputation for the treatment of long-term chronic illness continued to grow and the funding arrangements adapted. Patients were treated for a variety of rheumatic diseases and related illnesses, including skin ailments and ‘palsy’. The therapeutic properties of the hot mineral waters were used to enhance this rehabilitation treatment. Patients were initially taken to the corporation baths until an Act of Parliament empowered the governors to construct hydrotherapy baths within the hospital. This was achieved by using mineral waters pumped from the King’s Bath and hydrotherapy remains an important part of rehabilitation treatment for many of our patients today. In 1837 the hospital name changed to the Royal Mineral Water Hospital, and the nickname ‘The Min’ was born, a name which is still used by many today. Officially, however the hospital’s name changed again in 1936 to its current name, the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases.
The hospital has always specialised in rheumatology but has also treated other diseases and conditions. The large picture in the main staircase (painted by William Hoare) shows Dr Oliver (Physician) and Mr Pierce (Surgeon) examining patients suffering from ‘paralysis, rheumatism and leprosy’. This shows the first joint consultation taking place at the hospital. Leprosy was probably not what we understand by this term today, but a skin disease. Patients from all over the country who are suffering from skin diseases related to complex rheumatology conditions still receive specialist multidisciplinary treatment today. The picture also shows two of the patients wearing brass badges used by patients to gain entry to the corporation baths. In the background of the picture is John Wood’s plan for the hospital, which is still on display in the lecture hall.
Our hospital has a strong tradition of innovation. It was one of the earliest hospitals in the world to specialise in the treatment of rheumatic diseases, and was the first truly national hospital to be founded in Great Britain, admitting patients from all over the country. The specialist skills required for the management of rheumatic diseases led to the development of services in neurological rehabilitation and the management of chronic pain, chronic fatigue syndrome/ME and diagnostic services.
Casualties from five wars have been treated in the hospital and during the last world war the hospital was itself damaged. In 1942, the 19th century west wing sustained a direct hit and the chapel (now the lecture hall) was badly damaged. Two hundred patients and staff sheltering in the basement escaped unharmed. A rebuilding scheme was initiated in 1962 and the hospital and chapel were restored.
Research has always been an integral part of the hospital. The first major controlled clinical trial was concerned with the value of radiotherapy in different types of arthritis. This was followed by a similar investigation of the treatment of osteoarthritis by intra-articular injections. The unit also participated in combined clinical trials with other units on the evaluation of cortisone and later prednisalone treatment and then of aurotherapy. Clinical research continues to take place in all specialties within the hospital and there are strong links with the local universities and the Bath Institute for Rheumatic Diseases.
In 1991 our hospital was one of the first wave NHS trusts and in 2005 became an NHS foundation trust.
Throughout its history, the hospital’s key objective has been to be a forerunner in the research, development and provision of multidisciplinary treatments for rheumatology and rehabilitation. Focused on meeting complex patient needs, it has attracted, retained and developed high quality consultant and other medical staff who have maintained our reputation for delivery of high quality care.