The city of Liverpool is famous for many things. One of them which achieved renown on every continent was Dr Ross's Clinic, a name bestowed by seamen of every nationality upon the building erected by Liverpool Corporation in 1923, and described on the bronze plaque beside its front door as
"THE SEAMEN'S DISPENSARY. OPEN TO SEAMEN OF ALL NATIONS FOR FREE TREATMENT AND ADVICE".
The Seamen's Dispensary has been in the forefront, actively participating in the events spanning almost seven decades, comprising evolution and significant changes in the practice of the specialty now called Genitourinary Medicine (GUM). After 67 years of the most valuable service, the Seamen's Dispensary closed in December 1991.
A brief history of its origin and the placing on record of its contribution to sexually transmitted disease control in Liverpool and beyond is, I hope a fitting epitaph.
Before 20th century Liverpool was a small fishing village until 1207 when King John's Charter conferred upon it a borough status. It steadily grew in size and importance, owing largely to the West Indian trade and slave trade with W.Africa and the Americas. By the beginning of the 17th century, the Liverpool port was busy importing and exporting goods. By the end of the 18th century the city was very rich, mostly as a result of shipping. The city continued to flourish well into the 20th century, its port serving as the terminus for ships to and from every region of the world bringing in cargos and seafarers of all nationalities. Liverpool had become the gateway of the British Empire. Liverpool's sailortown had sprawled over a large area around Paradise S treet and Canning Place. It was around here that the famous Liverpool "forebitter", Maggie May, and others plied their trade. The sailors had to run the gauntlet to pass the parading prostitutes.
"When I steered into her, I hadn't got a care,
She waz cruisin' up an' down ol' Canning Place,
She was dressed in a gown so fine, like a frigate of the line,
An I bein' a sailorman gave chase".'
The special needs of the seafarers had been recognized; for example The General Infirmary in Liverpool, which opened in 1749, had two wings for the maintenance of "decayed seamen, their wives and children" However, patients with venereal disease (VD) in general, were treated as outcasts. To secure the "decency and good order of the house, venereal patients were to be so entirely detached as not to have the least intercourse with the other parts of the hospital" Nevertheless, some arrangements had existed at the Royal Infirmary, the Northern Hospital, the Stanley Hospital and the Royal Southern Hospital (opened respectively in 1824, 1834, 1867 and 1872) for the gratuitous treatment of venereal disease.
Origin of seamen's dispensary
The Liverpool Royal Infirmary Clinic was having the largest number of patients on its books. A significant proportion (40% in 1920) of those whose occupation was known were seafarers. This problem posed by large numbers of seafarers needed to be addressed and was not helped by the Merchant Shipping Act of 1906 which while-providing for the medical treatment of the sick sailor, retained "the proviso that a seaman suffering from venereal disease shall be excluded from such benefits".
Earlier, Liverpool Corporation had recognized the special need of health care facilities, including those for venereal disease, for seamen of all nationalities. The premises were to be designated as the Seamen's Dispensary. The latter was not to be labelled as an institution specially for venereal diseases because that would prejudice not only the prospects of obtaining a site, "but also the usefulness of the premises even in regard to venereal diseases". A suitable site for a Seamen's Dispensary was eventually found. After obtaining the approval of the Ministry of Health, the tender of Messrs R. Wearing & Sons was accepted and the building was completed in 1923 at a cost of £4,649. The Dispensary was opened by the Lord Mayor of Liverpool on 28th January 1924.