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Advances in health care

by Michael Goodman

For the first half of the 20th century, medical services in Barbados were provided by the General Hospital, the Psychiatric Hospital and the parish alms houses, some of which remain, now known as district hospitals.

There were also District Medical Officers, and people who couldn’t afford to pay for medical attention would see the Poor Law Inspector and get a note for a free consultation with the doctor. Many doctors had their own practices, but would do “poor law” work at clinics for a few hours two or three times a week, and would then go to the alms houses and do rounds there.

Although it had 400 beds, the old general hospital was overcrowded and in some wards, more than one patient had to sleep in a bed. Apparently, a patient with a heart condition found it too distressing to sleep in the bed with another patient, so he told the doctor he was going home. The doctor advised against it, but the patient insisted, saying: “No, I goin’ home. This fella kicking me too hard!”

Patients at the hospital had mostly acute medical conditions and cases requiring surgical intervention. Syphilis was prevalent, as was tuberculosis and other acute infections. There was also a high incidence of infant and maternal mortality caused mostly by poverty, poor housing, poor sanitation, malnutrition and the absence of fertility control services.

And with no immunisation, there was an abundance of infectious diseases in children like measles, chicken pox and whooping cough.

Health care improved in the 1950s with more attention being paid to preventative services, sanitation, housing, child care and maternity services, and treatment for venereal diseases and Tuberculosis.

Many substantial advances in health care can be traced to the appointment of Dr. Maurice Byer as Director of Medical Services and Chief Medical Officer at Arlington House in Speightstown, opened in 1953 as the Public Health Clinic in Barbados.

This was soon followed by a chain of centres throughout the island providing health information and education, treatment, antenatal and child care services and immunisation, as well as promoting and assisting in the improvement of sanitation

Dr Byer was also one of the founding members of the Family Planning Association, something for which Dr. Tony Gale campaigned tirelessly and which made an important contribution to fertility control in Barbados.

As well as being an outstanding medical practitioner, another key figure was Dr. Harry Bailey who was also an exceptional scientist. He offered x-ray services, which were quite unique at the time, and had the first private diagnostic laboratory.

Other influential doctors of the time included Dr. Gordon Cummins, who as Minister for Health, set progressive policies, and Dr. Edgar Cochrane who had a great deal of influence in preventative medicine and was particularly effective in his work in the treatment and prevention of TB.

And yet for all the advances in medicine, some of the old time remedies have not completely disappeared. Many older people will tell you they have managed to keep healthy by taking sea baths, and picking all kinds of bush including crab oil, sweet mint, St. John bush and others — putting on a pot of water, boiling up the bush and taking a drink every morning. So called “bush tea” is still especially popular for treating colds or flu.

* Join Michael Goodman & Peter Boyce on Bajan Living every Monday, 2-3pm, on 100.7 QFM Barbados or online at Find us on Facebook or email us at

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