Just stepping out into the street can seem pretty dangerous nowadays. So when I leave the safety of my own flat I crave some kind of reward — something that will make my journey through Fitzrovia feel worthwhile. A few weeks ago, meeting the goddess Hygeia on Hallam Street was one of those rewards.
Hygeia resides at 44-50 Hallam Street, and it was the handsome building she’s attached to which first caught my eye. Later I discovered that it was once the headquarters of the General Medical Council, the body responsible for setting standards for medical practitioners throughout the UK.
So it’s little wonder that one of the figures I spotted on the façade was Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. He’s easily recognisable because he carries a staff with a snake twined around it. Snakes can be deadly of course, but in ancient Greece they might also help to cure you. Employed in healing cults to lick the affected parts of patients, they quickly became a symbol of Asclepius.
Next to the god stands his daughter Hygeia, holding the dish which she uses for mixing medicines. Powerful and protective, father and daughter are supporting the lintel of one of the windows. The mixing-bowl appears again in the sculptural ornament above the window, complete with a large snake who is lapping up its contents.
Hygeia’s name means Health in Greek. Simple folk in some ways, the ancient Greeks liked to invite important concepts into their lives by worshipping them. If you’ve ever clinked glasses in Greece and cried ‘Yamas’, you’ve actually been invoking Hygeia (pronounced Ee-yee-a), or Our Health (‘Hygeia Mas’). In English she’s given us the word ‘hygiene’, so she’s very much a goddess for our times.
The Hallam Street block was built in two stages between 1915 and 1923. Based till then at 299 Oxford Street, the GMC needed larger premises, and bought the site from the Howard de Walden estate. The architect was Eustace C. Frere, of South African origin. He’s little known today, but in my view he did an excellent job. The building stands out from its neighbours because it’s in Portland stone rather than brick, but at the same time its Neo-Georgian proportions, along with Frederick Lessore’s sculptures, make it a harmonious addition to the street.
These days the GMC occupies even larger premises, just over the Euston Road in Regent’s Place, and their former offices are now home to the Hallam Conference Centre. On a return journey I was lucky enough to find the Centre open, and was shown around by the venue manager. She was such a delightful and welcoming young woman that I felt I must be meeting a personification of Hygeia herself. Outside, the goddess and her father remain in place, still watching over the people of London as they hurry past.
The GMC’s mission is to ‘protect, promote and maintain the health and safety of the public’. I for one have been greatly cheered by my sighting of the two Greek deities who supervise this process. So here’s to Hygeia and Asclepius, and the care they offer us in these testing times.
Sue Blundell is a playwright and lecturer in Classical Studies. sueblundell.com