Finding the “missing link”

Historians will be familiar with the challenges of researching an archive: sifting through a pile of dusty records, drawing a blank in a confusing catalogue, or scoring hundreds of hits searching an electronic database. With the help of an archive expert, however, the rewards outweigh the effort required.

When preparing for my presentation on English medical researcher Dr Annie Homer at the recent BSHM Congress in Edinburgh, I wanted to find out more about her time in Canada at the start of the First World War. In particular, she had served as the Assistant Director of the University of Toronto’s Antitoxin Laboratory, the forerunner of the Connaught Laboratories.

Extract from Antitoxin Laboratory Record of Diphtheria Antitoxin Refining, dated Sept 28th, 1914 [SPC Archives 83-006-01]

I contacted Dr Christopher Rutty, professional medical and public health historian, and consultant to Sanofi Pasteur Canada’s Connaught Campus in Toronto, where the original buildings and archive documents are preserved as part of the country’s medical heritage. By return e-mail, Chris sent me a copy of a lab notebook, which contained several pages written in Homer’s distinctive hand, revealing her work at the start of the war. The preservation of this “missing link” was a stroke of good fortune.

The Connaught Laboratories, University of Toronto, officially opened on Oct 25th, 1917 [SPC Archives 0591]

The Connaught Laboratories were established in 1917 to make up a shortfall of tetanus antitoxin needed by the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and became the site of pioneering advances in the production of vaccines, heparin and insulin. More information is available via The Legacy Project which can be viewed online at www.thelegacyproject.ca

Edward J Wawrzynczak

Oral Histories of Physicians

Former RCP treasurer, Dr John Bennett, taken in 1958 when he was a junior doctor and suffering from glandular fever (he looks very cheerful on it!).

Forty-five life story oral history interviews with members and fellows of the Royal College of Physicians of London are now accessible remotely through the RCP Library Catalogue. Researchers can access the recordings plus a full transcript or detailed summary by following the link below.

The recordings cover a wide variety of topics, including medical education, working life in the NHS, diagnostics, treatments and drug therapies in a variety of medical specialties, and the enormous changes seen in both the practice and management of medicine since the end of WWII. While inevitably we have interviewed RCP presidents, treasurers and registrars the collection also contains many stories of physicians who have had only minimal contact with the college but have done important work in district general hospitals throughout the UK.

Oral history is a particularly useful historical source for exploring how individuals experienced certain events or changes, and this is certainly true of the RCP collection. Interviewees talk of the exhaustion, fear and excitement of their time as house officers, of the wonder and trepidation of using new drugs for the first time, and of patients they will never forget. We have heard stories of physicians carrying out dangerous experiments on themselves and their colleagues and the feelings in the profession at the introduction of ethics committees. Interviewees have also shared their thoughts and experiences of the introduction of different government policies, the change from the firm to the shift system, the impact of Modernising Medical Careers and the impact of the NHS Internal Market System.

My favourite extracts from the collection are;

Dr Norman Jones reflecting back on setting up the first renal dialysis unit at St. Thomas’ Hospital,

Sir Colin Berry on the changes in doctor / patient communication during his career,

and a short compilation with Dr Virginia Camp, Professor Christine Lee and Professor Clare Fowler talking about their experiences of applying for medical school.

For more information on the collection please contact Sarah Lowry: sarah.lowry@rcplondon.ac.uk

To access the interviews go to: http://rcp.soutron.net/Portal/Default/en-GB/Search/SimpleSearch and click on <<Oral History: Voices of Medicine>> under <<Key Collections>>.

Sarah Lowry
RCP London

What looks primitive now was “cutting edge” then.

I recently presented a webinar for the British Institute of Radiology, looking at the developments of X-ray tubes. These tubes were developed in the 19th century and many contributed, including Michael Faraday and William Crookes. Whilst writing my talk I had several thoughts.

It is easy to look at early apparatus and see it as primitive, and the scientific issues involved appear quite straightforward. However this apparatus, which seems so basic to us was cutting edge science at the time. Little was known about what was actually going on in these tubes, and what the cathode rays actually were. It’s interesting to consider why Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895, and why they had not been discovered earlier. The tubes used by William Crookes in the 1870s would have produced X-rays, although they were not demonstrated. It was really only a matter of time before X-rays were discovered, however this should in no way diminish the genius of Röntgen. However William Crookes, Phillip von Lenard, or the Americans AW Goodspeed and William Jennings were all in a position to make the discovery. In Röntgen’s famous phrase, after he had observed something unusual “I did not think, I investigated”!

Cutting edge radiology apparatus in 1896, from Practical Radiography by H Snowdon Ward.
The picture shows the induction coil and battery with the X ray tube above

It also very difficult to put ourselves into the 19th century mindset. G W C Kaye writing in his classic X-Rays: An Introduction to the Study of Röntgen Rays (1919) wrote “In the early nineties (1890s), it was not infrequently maintained that the science of physics had put its house in complete order, and that any future advances could only be along the line of precision measurement.” In 1895 Charles Thurstan Holland had expressed similar sentiments regarding surgery. The discoveries of X-rays, followed in 1896 by the discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel turned everything upside down, leading to a revolution in the scientific understanding of both of the world and of ourselves. This is the reason why I find the period from the early 1890s leading up to the First World War so very fascinating. In comparison, whilst things have changed since my student days, the transformation has not compared in scale to that earlier period.

My final thought when preparing for my webinar is as to why some figures are plucked out for fame, and others remain obscure? Coolidge,  Crookes, and Röntgen are well known; and yet A Bouwers who made major contributions to radiology remains undeservedly obscure.

Finally a webinar is a great means of communication, and is one the BSHM should utilise.

Adrian Thomas
Past-President BSHM

Edinburgh Mystery Object

(from Surgeons’ Hall Museum, Edinburgh)

One of the earliest published descriptions of this instrument (possibly the earliest),  was by a famous Scottish surgeon-anatomist who collected examples from other surgeons and made modifications.

What is the instrument called, what was it used for and who was the surgeon ?

Clue – his portrait hangs in  Surgeons’ Hall, Edinburgh, venue of the BSHM September Congress

submitted by Iain Macintyre

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