A Breath of Life in the Archives

Laboratory (? at Sudbury), Credit: Wellcome Collection

 

A young man, an assistant in the laboratory, poses for the camera. The surroundings and his attire flag a bygone era. What stories might he tell us of that time?

The photograph is undated, and the location not precisely specified [1]. The time and place can, however, be established with some certainty. The lab is part of the Serum Department of the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine at Elstree, Hertfordshire. The year is 1903, or as near as matters, when this new establishment was unveiled to the press [2]. Another version of this image, artistically faded at the corners, appeared in a promotional pamphlet soon after [3].

In the archives of the Lister Institute, tucked away under ‘historical items’, sits a remarkable memoir [4]. Albert Riggs was 17 years old, and had been out of work for 4 weeks, when a neighbour working as a builder on the Elstree site suggested he apply for a vacancy. Riggs passed the interview and started as a lab assistant on 3 September 1903 on a weekly wage of 12 shillings. He was appointed Head Assistant at the beginning of World War I and remained an employee of the Institute for 48 years. He put down his memories in a 100-page annotated typescript illustrated with hand-drawn diagrams. Riggs’ first impressions of the Elstree Laboratories were drawn upon by the best-known history of the Lister Institute:

 

At six o’clock on a lovely August morning in 1903, I first saw the Lister Institute, or as it was then known locally “Queensberry Lodge”, and now whenever it comes to my mind, I see it as I saw it then, the lovely tree lined drive, the green fields, the trim hedges, the old house with its rustic porch in front, the stables with their eighteen horses and whistling stablemen, and the calm peace which reigned over everything. [5]

 

In considerable detail, Riggs describes the labs, animal houses and stables. He covers the routines involved in making a variety of serum products and the role of lab assistants immediately prior to 1914, and he offers a first-hand insight to the work of the Institute during the war when it supplied tetanus antitoxin and other antisera to the Army [6]. Most engagingly, Albert touches on aspects of his life, candidly recalls many of his colleagues, and describes – warts and all – some of the ‘characters’ under whom he worked.

With its authentic voice – a rare counterweight to the large volume of ‘official’ documents typical of institutional archives – this lab assistant’s memoir breathes life into history.

 

 

References

[1] Image of laboratory at Sudbury (?), Lister Institute, Wellcome Library Archives, SA/LIS/R.163.

[2] British Medical Journal1 [2217], 1513-15 (1903); The Lancet, 2 [4167], 120-1 (1903).

[3] A Laboratory at Queensberry Lodge, The Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine – with notes on serum therapeutics by members of the staff of the Institute, 1904, SA/LIS/P.13, facing p. 10.

[4] Albert Riggs’ Memoirs of the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, Elstree, Hertfordshire, c. 1951, SA/LIS/M.6.

[5] Chick, H, Hume, M. & Macfarlane, M. (1971) War on Disease: A History of the Lister Institute, London: Andre Deutsch, p. 80.

[6] Wawrzynczak, E.J. (2018) Making serum, saving soldiers: the Lister Institute during World War I, VesaliusJournal of the International Society for the History of Medicine,Vol. XXIV, No. 2, 40-48.

 

 

Edward Wawrzynczak

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