One-way systems to keep patients separate

Eastern Dispensary, Bath Photo: William Rogers,

The Corona virus pandemic prevention measures were not the first one-way system in British health care, as William Evans explains.

One feature of the measures imposed or encouraged by the UK government to stop Corona virus spreading was one-way systems for human traffic. In premises such as doctor’s surgeries, one-way systems aimed to reduce close contact between people and avoid transmission of the virus.

One-way systems are not new. We are familiar with them in the management of road traffic. Although fewer accidents and a reduction in personal injuries are some results, the main aims are to relieve traffic congestion and reduce conflict among road users. Another example comes from the household goods sector. The retailer Ikea makes customers follow a prescribed route through its stores. In this case, the aim is not safety, but more sales by bringing to customers’ attention all the goods offered, not just those the customer may be interested in.

There is a historic precedent for a one-way system in a medical context from the Eastern Dispensary in Cleveland Place East, Bath. Opened in 1845, it was designed by the local architect, Henry Edmund Goodridge (1797-1864). The external design is neo-classical: the entrance at the front through a portico with columns and a pediment. Inside, the design was innovative. On entering, patients were directed into one of two waiting rooms at either side of the building (one for women, one for men?). In each waiting room, the patients sat on, and moved along, benches. The first bench was attached to the left side wall, the next one to the right, and so on.

As a result, patients moved along the benches in queue until they were summoned to rooms at the back of the building where they were seen by an apothecary or surgeon or went into a dressing room. They then left the building by a back door from the room where they were seen or treated.

Plan of the dispensary The Builder, (1849) 160

The purpose of that layout may have had much to do with keeping order in what could otherwise have been a melee, but no doubt it also helped to limit the transmission of infectious or contagious diseases. Goodridge’s radical design was commended by The Builder magazine as a model for future dispensaries. It would be interesting to know whether his Bath layout was followed elsewhere.

After it ceased being used as a dispensary, the building housed various activities: in the 1910s, for example, colleges and pharmacies. It is now a bistro.


Plan of the dispensary: Bath & NE Somerset Council Archives, 0033

The Builder, (1849) 160;

Michael Forsyth, Bath, in the Pevsner Architectural Guides series, Yale UP 2003

For Goodridge: HM Colvin, A biographical dictionary of British architects 1600-1840, Yale UP 1997

For dispensaries: Michael Whitfield, The dispensaries: healthcare for the poor before the NHS, Author House 2006

William Evans is treasurer of Avon Local History & Archaeology, the umbrella group for local history in the Bristol and Bath area.

Posted in infectious disease, public health, Uncategorized and tagged , , , .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.