Doctors’ Hours and The Mess Dinner


Doctors’ Hours and The Mess Dinner

“Things were different in my day” is an expression every junior doctor hears from at least one of their consultants, especially the older ones. That is one “thing” that actually doesn’t change. My juniors will all have heard me say something similar, probably more than once. I try not to but sometimes I can’t help myself and it just comes out.

It was a long standing tradition at my teaching hospital, Bart’s (the Royal and Ancient Hospital of Saint Bartholomew’s), that a mess dinner was held at the end of the six-month house officer runs in July and January. It always took place in the Great Hall. It was very formal; dinner suits and long dresses were the expected attire. We had a sit down meal with waiter service and lots (and lots) of wine.

The Great Hall is an imposing venue. The building dates from the 18th century. The Baroque style hall has a high ornamental ceiling; the walls are crowded with plaques listing the names of the hospital’s benefactors. The sums each donated are shown; some are odd totals because they came from the remnants of deceased estates.

There was some artwork, many of famous past Bart’s men, but the most impressive paintings were murals by William Hogarth (1697-1764) which greet you as you ascend the stairs. They depict biblical scenes: The Pool of Bethesda and The Good Samaritan.

Apparently Hogarth offered to paint them for free when he found out an Italian artist might be commissioned to do the job. He was rewarded with a ward being named after him, one of few dedicated to non-Bart’s men. Hogarth was a Freemason so may well have had another connection with the hospital. Several (possibly most) of the surgeons at Bart’s “in my day” were supposed to be Freemasons.

It was a tradition to invite the most recently appointed and the most near to retiring consultants to give talks. There were four consultants at my mess dinner in July 1982.

Their speeches were reminiscent of the famous Monty Python “Shoebox” sketch, also known as the “Four Yorkshiremen”. If you haven’t seen it there is a video on YouTube. In the skit four well-dressed men talk about their humble beginnings and difficult childhoods. It is a parody of nostalgic conversations as they try and outdo each other with accounts of their deprivations, which rapidly become more and more absurd.

Well of course we had it tough… we used to get up out of shoebox at twelve o’clock at night and lick road clean with tongue.

The Yorkshire accents get progressively stronger. Those aren’t grammatical mistakes.

It ends with: “…and if you tell that to young people today, they won’t believe you…”

All the Yorkshireman then say together “No – no they won’t!”

It has been described as the best Python sketch and was a regular in their live shows. Interestingly, Graham Chapman’s funeral (he was a Bart’s graduate and co-wrote it) was held in the Great Hall. He would have laughed about the events of that night.

Junior doctors’ hours have always been an issue. The guest consultants made that the subject of their speeches. I don’t think it was planned or coordinated; it may have been, but I don’t think they would have been that subtle.

The first two consultants to speak, the most recent appointees, told of getting a weekend off a month while pointing out that we “only” had to work every other weekend.

Can you picture the scene? The speeches were after dinner (and a lot of drinks) and the heckling soon started. The audience of house officers was getting restless.

The first of the retiring consultants then rose to his feet and claimed that he had worked all 365 days of his year as a house surgeon, he had no time off at all and he had to ask permission to leave the hospital grounds: “… and not only that… we didn’t get paid…”

By this time the parallels with the Monty Python sketch were apparent, if unintentional. How could the last consultant beat that? The crowd was restless. Paper napkins were torn up and dipped in water (and then wine) and the top table was bombarded.

The last old boy confirmed everything his younger colleagues had said and finally finished with: “…and we were expected to contribute to the cost of the patient Christmas turkey.

I suspect the top table complained to each other after the dinner, not much differently from Python’s four Yorkshireman: “…and if you tell that to young doctors today, they won’t believe you…”


– Paul Reeve

Paul Reeve is a general physician in Waikato Hospital. He was brought up in Hong Kong, went to medical school in London and worked in Africa and Vanuatu before moving to New Zealand.

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