Skip to content

Nurses and TB in 1950

February 5, 2016
The patient who became a nurse. Click on the image to view the film. Photo courtesy of Lothian Health Service Archive

The patient who became a nurse. Click on the image to view the film. Photo courtesy of Lothian Health Services Archive

What was it like to start out as a nurse in 1950?

All tickety boo, according to this short film (9 mins) from the NLS Moving Image Archive. Click on the image to see it.

It’s a public information/propaganda film made by the National Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis (NAPT) and is set at East Fortune sanatorium in East Lothian.

The notion of a nurse having the time to tell her life story out loud in a public ward isn’t he most credible dramatic platform! The main character went to Edinburgh University intending to be a teacher but contracted TB and, impressed by the nurses who looked after her, decided for a career on the wards instead.

So a bit second best (and ironical, since little more than a decade later Edinburgh became the first European university to offer degree-level nursing courses).

It’s also a lie. Former TB patients were not allowed to train as teachers. Bill McLaren, then a patient at East Fortune, desperately wanted to be a teacher but was denied. That’s why he chose journalism and ultimately broadcasting to become rugby’s greatest ever commentator.

Better days... when teh garden was tended

Better days… when the garden was tended

His experience of the new drug streptomycin was also markedly different from the optimistic tone of the film.

“I came closer to despair that time than at any other stage of my career …. the saddest thing was constantly seeing your fellow patients, especially those you had got friendly with and chatted to every day, suddenly decline and then die,” he later wrote.

Scotland was then the only country in Europe apart from Portugal where new cases of TB were continuing to rise unchecked.

Streptomycin worked for Bill but not for three fellow patients  who died – as did more than half of the seriously ill patients in Scotland put on trial streptomycin treatment by the end of 1948.

This is probably why the film was made. Morale needed any boost it could get.

Half of those diagnosed with pulmonary TB would die and TB meningitis was certain death for children. It carried a dreadful stigma and young women were particularly vulnerable. One sadistic Edinburgh consultant delighted in telling his young female patients: “You are all rosy red apples, rotten to the core.”

There was a huge shortage of nurses at this time – especially in TB hospitals like East Fortune. Nurses from remoter areas of Britain and Ireland with little acquired resistance were frequent victims of tuberculosis. Many died in their first year of training.

It was this (and a Medical Research Council trial) which finally pushed the BCG vaccine into widespread use in Britain – 30 years after it first became available in France.

East Fortune now... sadly delapidated.

East Fortune now… sadly delapidated.

Conditions for nursing staff at East Fortune were also far from ideal, as sister Elizabeth Gow recalled in a 2012 interview for East Lothian Life:

“People accepted what their lot was and just got on with it” she said.

“I had given the streptomycin injections before when I worked in Arbroath. It was good to see patients recovering quickly. They were getting diagnosed earlier and that was a real help.

“The nurses’ accommodation was dreadful. We had a sitting room which leaked badly. We pointed this out to Dr Murray (the medical superintendent). He said it only leaked when it rained – as it did for most of the year.

“We got a petition and raised it with the board of management and it was fixed. Nobody really cared and the food was diabolical.

“But this was on the back of war time when we had been used to rationing. Our expectations were not very high – it was just as well.”

Things did change markedly in the 1950s. East Fortune pressed into service nine wooden huts enabling it to provide to 400 beds for patients from Edinburgh. This  proved a godsend.

“It was an enormous boon to the people of Edinburgh. This was a very grim period. At that time they would have to wait six months for admission to hospital and quite a number would die waiting,” Jimmy Williamson, a doctor at East Fortune recalled.

Jimmy moved to Edinburgh in 1954 and was the last consultant to join Sir John Crofton’s team which developed the international gold standard cure for TB by using all three drugs from the outset and meticulously monitoring their bacteriological impact in patients..

“I remember my last tuberculosis patient” he said.

“He was a nice chap who had a shadow on his lung.  I told him it was tuberculosis – and he grabbed my hand and said ‘Thank God!“If I had said that to him ten years earlier, he would have wept. The difference was that he knew he would now be cured – and he was.”

And more delapidation

And more delapidation

East Fortune went the way of most former TB sanatoria, beds later used for other purposes.  It’s a shame that it has gone downhill since – so much so that the rather elegant buildings in the film are unrecognisable now.

The film’s optimism was premature and unfounded but ultimately vindicated within a decade. There were only three professional actors involved. The rest are real patients, nurses, doctors and other staff. The film is a testament to them.

Bravo to the Moving Image Archive for making it available online. It is a good example of the hidden gems highlighted this week by Martin Scorsese as he backed a new appeal for the archive: “Films shouldn’t be locked away and neglected in a vault somewhere. They  need to be protected and preserved, but they also need to be seen, studied, and enjoyed.”

Further reading:

For more on the NAPT’s extensive film output, see Anna Ritchie’s excellent history of the Stroke Association (formerly the NAPT). It’s on page 18 in part one here.

My former Herald colleague Ann Shaw and Wellcome outreach historian Carole Reeves led a brilliant project recreating life in a Welsh TB sanatorium in the early 1950s from the perspective of patients. Read more here. 

Christmas 11 + 117



Christmas 11 + 151

The wee Glasgow women and the birth of Caesarian

November 16, 2015
Cameron's first three patients. Courtesy Glasgow University/Heatherbank Museum of Social Work

Cameron’s first three patients. Courtesy Glasgow University/Heatherbank Museum of Social Work

Every woman who now undergoes an elective Caesarian section owes a debt to these wee Glasgow wifies.

They weren’t the first by any means.  But they played a key role in establishing that the operation could be carried out safely with both mother and baby surviving.

In medical textbooks they are described as “ricketic dwarfs” who underwent the procedure at Rottenrow – Glasgow Maternity Hospital.  The photograph shows the women standing by a window sill at Rottenrow – it was 3 ft 3 in high.

Rickets, a disease caused by vitamin D deficiency through lack of exposure to sunlight or inadequate diet, was rife in Glasgow in the 1880s. It left some women with a deformed pelvis, incapable of delivering a baby and more than likely dying along with their child if they tried.

Obstetrician Murdoch Cameron saw them differently, just as deserving of the fulfilment of motherhood as any other woman.

Caesarian section was still a last resort at this time, along with even ghastlier alternatives – craniotomy and symphysiotomy. Survival rates were as low as one in ten. There was, however, increasing success reported in Europe such as by Max Sänger in Leipzig and Eduardo Porro in Italy.

Murdoch Cameron, pioneer of the elective Caesarian. Courtesy of Glasgow University

Murdoch Cameron, pioneer of the elective Caesarian. Courtesy of Glasgow University

This was helped by Simpson’s first use of chloroform as an anaesthetic  and Lister’s application of antiseptics in surgery. Cameron had worked under Lister in Glasgow and had closely observed his methods.

Mark Skippen’s  PhD thesis provides fascinating background to Cameron’s work and some detail about the women themselves.

The first in April 1888 was 27 years old described as “a little woman, somewhat delicate, and with the appearance of a patient deformed by rickets in a very marked degree.” On arrival, she was already in labour and Cameron, after consulting with colleagues, decided a Caesarian was the only option.

A fire in the operating theatre caused by a bottle of ether catching light delayed the start of the operation and may have helped sterilise the room. It was a resounding success and the mother reportedly christened her son “Caesar Cameron.”

The second woman and her baby also survived.  They became a band of mothers – the first two acted as bridesmaids to the third woman who was married at the hospital.

The astonishing success of the operations were reported widely in the Lancet and British Medical Journal. Cameron’s fame also grew, largely through his contributions to international meetings and congresses.

In all he did not do that many – between 10 and 14. Initially he achieved 100 per cent success. Later deaths, probably due to sepsis or other factors rather than the operation, were not reported. Cameron also sterilised all his Caesarian patients by blocking their fallopian tubes, probably out of good intent to spare them another life or death ordeal. It is not clear if he obtained their consent.

What was established in Glasgow was the value of elective Caesarians – women were admitted much earlier with the prospect of a planned operation, not a final desperate attempt to save a woman already exhausted from other attempts to deliver.

At the very least Cameron demonstrated compassion for such pitiable and unfortunate patients and a real desire to help them as best he could.  Others had a different view about the voices of women – Simpson was roundly attacked for providing pain relief in labour because their screams of agony were deemed an essential part of God’s will for womanhood.

Religious controversies are still with us. There remains a huge scandal in Ireland over the bizarre reintroduction of symphysiotomies the 1940s as an alternative to Caesarians.

Mark Skippen argues that Cameron’s achievements may have been exaggerated locally but subsequently overlooked internationally.

I wonder what these remarkable women would be thinking now – more than 125 years later when Caesarian sections account for one third or more deliveries in some of the richer countries, increasingly through personal choice rather than clinical necessity.

I suspect their sympathies would be with the 500,000 women around the world who still die every year for want of any basic midwifery or obstetric care.

A Glasgow woman and baby in slum. c. 1910

Slum life for a Glasgow woman and baby c 1910. Courtesy of Glasgow City Council/The Glasgow Story

Glasgow’s contribution to obstetrics has been astonishing. Munro Kerr, Cameron’s assistant and later successor to the chair of midwifery, later refined the Caesarian operation to what it is used today. Ian Donald developed ultrasound now used across the world.

We also have to thank another Glasgow woman in the 1950s who held off going for a pee before a consultation with Donald. The pressure from her full bladder revealed a foetus on the screen. This was the turning point for ultrasound’s transition from a gynaecological to obstetric diagnosis..

My interest in Cameron was triggered by Andrew Calder, a retired professor of obstetrics and lovely guy (he witnessed our daughter Catherine’s entry into the world). He is also a neat historian and his account of Scotland’s contributions to obstetrics  is well worth a read.

Further reading:

Obstetric practice and cephalopelvic disproportion in Glasgow between 1840 and 1900 by Mark William Skippen.  Glasgow University PhD thesis, 2009.

Sniffers of the stench of corruption….

August 3, 2015

Three examples from the golden age of political caricature featuring Henry Dundas, the first Viscount Melville….

Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

This one satirises the five-strong Commission of Naval Enquiry quizzing Dundas and the Navy paymaster Alexander Trotter (the guys in kilts).

The Commission’s dogged persistence revealed an enormous casino banking scandal and endemic corruption in the Navy overseen by Dundas. This was 200 years ago but some may see contemporary overtones in denials and attempts to thwart their work, undue Scottish influence in Westminster, and er…. the stench of banking corruption.

For a fuller account, see my piece in Public Finance magazine.

I think it is the work of Edinburgh-born Isaac Cruikshank who worked for most of his life in London. He drew another caricature of Dundas in 1805:

Courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland

Courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland

The third one is by of James Gilray, the foremost political cartoonist of his generation.  His earlier portrayal from 1788 shows Dundas at his empire building zenith at the East India Company straddling two continents.

There is no doubt that the power of the media then through caricature through Cruikshank and Gilray shaped public opinion and assisted in the ultimate disgrace of Dundas, although he still stands as the tallest statue in Edinburgh.

Dundas straddling continents in 1788, Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Dundas straddling continents in 1788, Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

More info:

The National Portrait Gallery’s extensive Gilray collection

The National Maritime Museum has a splendid array of  fine art and other Naval exhibits.

Hansard report on the impeachment and a fuller contemporary account  of the process.

History of Parliament profile of Dundas

Venice – the first British Embassy?

August 2, 2015


A longer version of this piece with a focus on religious issues in Venice appears in the August edition of Life and Work magazine

So where was the first British embassy? I think it was Venice (although Brussels may also have claim) established in 1604 after the union of the English and Scottish crowns under James VI or I.  So he was our  first truly Britannic Majesty

It was part of James’s ambition to develop a “community of ideas” in Europe beyond the narrow and fractious diplomatic battle lines of Elizabeth’s later reign.

The first ambassador in Venice was Henry Wotton.  Diplomacy was then more of an ad hoc affair with individuals sent out to lesser foreign courts and permanent representation reserved for key capitals.

Sir Henry Wotton

Henry Wotton (1568-1639)

So there was plenty of scope for a freelance traveller like Wotton. He blagged his way into the king’s favour on a mission from the Duke of Tuscany warning James of a plot to poison him. Wotton arrived in Scotland (via Norway to avoid the attention of Elizabeth’s spies) with a selection of antidotes. He kept up his disguise as an Italian, Ottavo Baldi, throughout his three month stay at James’s court in Stirling.

An ambassador’s life was precarious. Wotton was broke almost throughout his career – he turned down Madrid to go to Venice because of the additional costs. Payments from London didn’t always arrive on time and expenses of employing staff and entertaining visiting aristocratic worthies were considerable.

There was serious business, such as over the Interdict crisis when the Venetian Republic fell out seriously with the Pope, and very busy consular activity.  At this time Venice was becoming hugely popular with travellers – the start of the Grand Tour, merchants, academics, and various adventurers.  As the ambassador noted, by 1612 even female tourists were arriving in numbers.

The Arsenale was the largest and most impressive military/industrial military complex in Europe, capable of building and fitting out a war galley in a week.

Padua University, via the work of Galileo, Vesalius, and Fabricius, was Europe’s leading intellectual magnet and its classes were open to Protestants. Venice itself was also celebrated for its book publishing.

The embassy also kept a beady eye (and reported back) on visitors at risk of succumbing to the “beauty of holiness” of Catholicism, all too evident in Venice’s stunning churches.

Tutors for nobles on their visits to Venice drew on their experience in later life – not least the architect Inigo Jones and political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. William Harvey’s first demonstration of the circulation of blood was founded on his medical studies in Padua.

Pretty sure this is Wotton's palazzo on the Grand Canal for his second embassy. Close to the Ghetto

Pretty sure this is Wotton’s palazzo on the Grand Canal for his second embassy. Close to the Ghetto

Then there were the bad boys….. in pursuit of sin with Venice’s celebrated courtesans, drinking and partying and resultant fighting like the student son of Sir Julius Caesar, Chancellor of the Exchequer,  who unfortunately died in a scrap when swords were drawn.

Ambassadors also had to intervene for their own staff as when their interpreter, Giacomo Castelvetro who had taught King James Italian in Scotland for four or five years and was well-liked by the king. This saved him from a worse fate than expulsion after his arrest by the Venetian Inquisition in 1611.

Venice also attracted Scots like Lord Dingwall unsuccessfully offering his services in 1616 to the Venetian army and John Thomas, a young engineer and clockmaker, who had a scheme to provide the city with fresh water but later needed the ambassador’s help when he was implicated in a plot against the republic.

It was Wotton who started in earnest the trade in fine art. Works by Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto became much prized back home. This was continued by his successor as ambassador, Dudley Carleton, and prominent visitors like the Earl of Oxford.

This trade reached its zenith a century later with the British consul Joseph Smith, whose palace on the Grand Canal at one time became a factory for Canaletto’s output.

Consul Joseph Smith's palazzo on the Grand Canal

Consul Joseph Smith’s palazzo on the Grand Canal

Sending back books and paintings was a valuable means of ingratiating a distant ambassador with influential figures at court where wagging tongues could easily end careers. Glassware from Murano was much-prized. The Venetians threatened, without much success, dire consequences for skilled blowers who wanted to leave. Other gifts included lutes and lute strings and a mango tree.

Good friends were essential. Wotton had his own supporters and was also very good pals with Izaak Walton and John Donne.

He comes over as a rather agreeable chap. His passion for dramatic flourish probably provided the model for Sir Politic Would-be, the archetypal Italianate Englishman in Ben Jonson’s Volpone.

Wotton wouldn’t let you down. When the early travel writer Tom Coryat got into a serious and potentially violent argument with a rabbi in the Ghetto (I blame Coryat – he comes over as an opinionated git) it was Wotton, who happened to be passing in the embassy gondola, that came to his rescue.

He also had an ironic  sense of humour which really did get him into trouble. Wotton is celebrated for his definition: “An Ambassador is an honest man, sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”

Intended as a private remark it was used publicly against him by an opponent and King James was not best pleased. Wotton, who served three terms as ambassador, was eventually forgiven.

He eventually returned to become Provost of Eton College, where some of his Venetian paintings still hang.  As ever beset by debt, he was still able to offer good cheer and company to his friends and go fishing with Walton.

The Thames would have offered time for peaceful reflection back to the headier days on the Grand Canal……


Edinburgh still failing Elsie Inglis

April 2, 2015

I really don’t understand why Edinburgh continues to blithely trample on the memory of Elsie Inglis. It’s more through ignorance and indifference but the blundering shows no signs of abating.

Last month did bring official recognition with the naming of an embassy residence in Elsie’s honour – in Belgrade, an inspired initiative by Ambassador Denis Keefe (pictured right) and his team.  He and the Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic (pictured left) unveiled a commemorative plaque.

Elsie plague Belgrade

Courtesy British Embassy,Belgrade

Elsie plaque Belgrade 2

A parliament also hosted a presentation on the role of Australian volunteers in the Scottish Women’s Hospitals – the Serbian Parliament, proud of the second maternity hospital built by the SWH as a living memorial to Elsie’s work (and still going strong despite a lethal NATO air strike in 1999).

Meanwhile, back in Edinburgh the first of those hospitals continues to lie neglected. It was closed in 1988 and the site sold off.  It is just a stone’s throw from the Scottish Parliament where debates to date have largely been around whether and where to put up a statue to Elsie – entirely missing the point of what she and her SWH colleagues wanted as a legacy.


Advert from the Glasgow Herald, May 29, 1918

And the name of Elsie Inglis remains tainted with tawdry scandal – following closure of a former nursing home on the site after the deaths of two patients. The Crown Office has yet to announce its conclusion three years after a police investigation.

It’s a pretty bleak place now – not much to show for the huge enthusiasm behind the public appeal launched in 1918 to build it.

Their purpose was crystal clear- to continue Elsie’s life’s work helping poor Edinburgh mothers and their babies. Her Hospice in the High Street was very cramped – hence the desire for a new hospital.

Rural visiting nurse Elizabeth McPhee Scotland 1926

Courtesy US National Library of Medicine

Living memorials were not that unusual at this time.  The Clan Macrae Society provided a district nurse in the parishes of Kintail and Glenshiel as “this was considered a better form of memorial to the gallant clansmen who had fallen than by wasting money on bricks and mortar.”  By 1926 nurse Elizabeth McPhee (above) fulfilled this role – complete with BSA motorcycle.

The original foundation stone is still there as are two engravings on the outside wall – both of the same woman, Mona Chalmers Watson (née Geddes) a key supporter of the appeal.

Elsie plaque

She was the first female medical graduate of Edinburgh University and like Elsie was an ardent suffragist. Mona and her doctor husband Douglas had a medical practice in Walker Street very near Elsie’s.

Her own achievements were extraordinary. Amongst other things, she was the founder and first commandant of of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps and the first president of the Edinburgh Women Citizens’ Association.

Mona 1

The Mona 2plaques for Mona were restored in 2006 by her descendants.  In any other city you would expect this to be provided by a public body – but, of course, not in Edinburgh.

You can now see them on the Mapping Memorials to Scottish Women site (well worth a look!).

The plaques offer insight into the range and passion of Elsie’s supporters. Common bonds included service with the SWH, the suffrage movement, improving nutrition, medical and nursing organisations, and, above all, concern for the welfare of poor women and their families.

All of this required determination, resourcefulness, and courage.  This is the group which is the real butt of the current insult because Edinburgh appears intent to erase them and their efforts from history.

I think this is largely due to sheer ignorance but others may detect more than a current whiff of the prejudice they faced then – rarely overt misogyny but usually casual indifference laced with patronising condescension when required.

Are there any bright spots?  Yes – a new scheme “The Elsie’s” has been introduced offering NHS Lothian staff grants and bursaries to develop their careers.

It’s a good start. And there is no point looking back with rose-tinted spectacles to disease palaces which belong in the past. Some mothers had bad experiences at the Memorial Hospital. Nor was the old Bruntsfield Hospital for women much good for a mother with a toddler in pram and an appointment on the top floor with no lift.

Needs, practices and demands change over the years.  All it takes is a bit of gumption and imagination to take into account the basic principles established by past generations.

Selling off old assets is not a crime. Selling the soul of Elsie Inglis down the river definitely is. One of the stoutest defenders of that legacy was the redoubtable accountant Helen Lowe whom I interviewed for the Herald in 1993.

Another development last month launched at Edinburgh Castle by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon may still provide an opportunity. The headlines said Edinburgh was the first city in the world to offer the family nurse partnership programme to all eligible mothers.

Whoopy do….. Funnily enough the Hospice was carrying out very similar pioneering work more than 100 years ago. It offered baby clinics in the High Street and health visitors going into “wretched, rotting” homes.  By 1905 it was a recognised centre for training midwives and had set up its first milk depot.

A safe milk supply was essential  providing much-needed nutrition but untreated supplies also harboured deadly bacteria, especially tuberculosis. In 1923 Mona and Douglas Chalmers Watson inherited a farm at Fenton Barns near North Berwick which they developed into a European leader in production of TB-tested milk.

Even poorest mothers preferred to pay for the Hospice’s services than those provided free at Simpson’s. Edinburgh Town Council eventually recognised its merits and replicated the Hospice example across the city.

The Hospice in the High Street

The Hospice in the High Street – from Elsie Inglis by Eva Shaw McLaren (1920)

There is no doubt that the Family Nurse Partnership, developed in America and based in Colorado, is an excellent programme which delivers substantial benefit to disadvantaged first time mothers and their babies.

However, I could find no reference in the Scottish Government’s announcement or research papers of any previous efforts to help poor Edinburgh mothers and their children.

This isn’t that surprising. Policy tends to be developed in cycles on the glib assumption that everything in it is new – thus ignoring Congressional librarian Daniel Boorstin’s dictum that making policy without a sense of the past is like planting cut flowers and hoping for the best.

Ironically, history is littered with an extraordinary transatlantic exchange of nursing ideas stretching back to the 1890s when Matron Rebecca Strong’s training scheme for Glasgow Royal Infirmary inspired the establishment of the nursing school at Yale University.

One of Elsie’s close friends Helen Mackenzie and her husband Leslie were guests of honour at the opening of first Frontier Nursing Service hospital at Hyden, Kentucky in 1928, which traced its origins to the Highlands and Islands Medical Service.

Another close friend and co-founder of the Hospice, Jessie Macgregor left Edinburgh to develop a career in surgery in Colorado.  But she contracted meningitis and died in Denver in 1906. Elsie herself found the model of what she wanted the Hospice to be in a maternity hospital at Muskegon, Michigan during a visit to the USA in 1913.

Her plans were curtailed by the war and her own untimely death in 1917. Is it too much to ask that she’ll be better remembered in Edinburgh by the time of the centenary? Or should we just head off to Belgrade instead?

Elsie Inglis with hat in the Great Tapestry of Scotland

Elsie Inglis with hat in the Great Tapestry of Scotland

Sources/further reading

Biographical piece by Lucy Inglis in the Lancet

Women Heroes of World War 1 by Kathryn J. Attwood, Chicago Review Press, 2014

Women in Medicine in late Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century Edinburgh, a case study by Elaine Thomson, Edinburgh University PhD thesis 1998 (see pp 203-240)

Oxford DNB biography of Mona Chalmers Watson

Lothian Health Services Archive holds they key primary sources for the Hospice and Memorial Hospital

I’ve also written this related piece for the Scottish Review

Motorcycling nurses

March 16, 2015

mcphee 2Meet district nurse Elizabeth McPhee with her rather splendid BSA motorcycle in 1926. She is the headline image in a stunning online collection at the US National Library of Medicine.  The exhibition, curated by Julia Hallam, of Liverpool University, who talks about it here, is based on 2,500 postcards collected over the years by American nurse Michael Zwerdling.

Tricky problems for an Italian nurse in 1915 - keeping the halo out of the wings

Tricky problems for an Italian nurse in 1915 – keeping the halo out of your  wings

Postcards would, as you’d expect, provide the usual sex or saint stereotypes of nursing but there is much more to it than that…..

Lincoln nurses 1930

Lincoln Nursing School 1930

You see how race shaped nurse education from the African American nurses at the George A. Brewster Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida set up after the great fire in 1901 and the Lincoln School for Nurses established in New York the following year. There are  Japanese  Red Cross nurses from 100 years, various members of European royal families in nurse uniforms in World War One and a Nazi people’s welfare nurse helping folk at a train station in the 1930s.

Flora Ferguson, the first motorised nurse in the Highlands, 1926. Courtesy of Am Baile

Flora Ferguson, the first motorised nurse in the Highlands, 1926. Courtesy of Am Baile

Patients don't look that smiley with Czarina and family in nursing attire

Pretty  glum patients  with the  Czarina and family in nursing attire

It also goes into the modern era with a more accurate depiction of nursing, including the work of male nurses.  It’s a real treat… Which brings us back to Elizabeth. The  Clan Macrae Society funded various memorials after World War One but also a district nurse post in the parishes of Kintail and Glenshiel as “this was considered a better form of memorial to the gallant clansmen who had fallen than by wasting money on bricks and mortar.”

The association of Scottish nurses  with motorcycles is probably due to the work of the Highlands and Island Medical Service which provided grants to nurses and doctors for essential means of transport so they could do their jobs. Many nurses recruited to the Highlands and Islands were Queen’s Nurses – specialists trained in district nursing.

Yet more motorbikes.. location unknown

Yet another motorbike . location unknown

There is another brilliant online collection produced by the Queen’s Nursing Institute in 2009 to mark 150 years of district nursing.  Here you’ll find real life images of nurses and midwives from London’s East End as portrayed in Call the Midwife. But my all time favourite is Queen’s nurse Catriona MacAskill, weighing a baby on North Uist in the 1950s. Sheer joy….

North Uist 1950s

Nurse MacAskill and not so tiny tot. I guess this would be net weight!  Courtesy Queen’s Nursing Institute Scotland

Whiz-bangs on the web – digital history and WW1

November 30, 2014
Scottish prisoners of war enjoying a bowl of soup. Courtesy, Great War in Color

Scottish prisoners of war enjoying a bowl of soup. Courtesy, The Great War in Color

What did you do in the Great Centenary, Daddy/Mummy?

It is already the UK’s most expensive commemoration in history thanks to £50 million of Government funding.  War was actually declared in August but the centenary started much earlier: broadcast and publishing schedules had already been awash with it for months.

Much has been spearheaded by Imperial War Museum (IWM) but virtually every school, library, and university  and  is hosting its own exhibition.

So anyone not knowing who Gavrilo Princip was or that the Kaiser was Queen Victoria’s favourite grandson must have just arrived from a different planet.

The most remarkable feature has been the level of public participation. A vast array of primary sources has been made available online – film, photographs, service records, newspapers and diaries.

French troops from North Africa on the Western Front. Courtesy The Great War in Color

French troops from North Africa on the Western Front. Courtesy The Great War in Color

Instead of passive consumers of history, ordinary people have become active creators of their own narratives, applying the historiographical principles developed by Lewis Namier at Manchester and WG Hoskins in Leicester to the internet age.

What this has done is to humanise history. We now know the stories behind the names on war memorials. World War One is no longer the school dinner menu of great powers and generals with a seasoning of Sasoon and the Somme.

The evidence for this is in the explosion of social media where hundreds of local groups are using Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest not only to disseminate digitised archive material but to share and learn from others with similar interests.

Exploring and harnessing the potential of digital history had already gained momentum, particularly in genealogy, but the centenary has elevated it to quite a different scale.

Two shining examples for me are Alan Cumming, not the actor but a landscape gardener, who has championed the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and Sue Light  who has opened up the history of military nursing to a vast new audience.

1930 poster for All Quiet on the Western Front

1930 poster for All Quiet on the Western Front

There are precedents for this.  All Quiet on the Western Front set a new benchmark not just for talkies but Hollywood’s portrayal of war.  For those who remember the crackling print shown on TV, the newly restored digital film and soundtrack evokes the full shocking impact it must have had in 1930 when it won two Oscars.

What do we want with eggs and ham?

What do we want with eggs and ham?

Similarly, Joan Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War transformed musical theatre as well as public perceptions of the conflict.

The centrepiece of the 50thanniversary was The Great War which became a landmark in television documentary production with 26 weekly programmes featuring interviews with actual survivors.  It was the brainchild of Alasdair Milne, future BBC director general, and colleagues on the Tonight programme.  The series also gave the first job to an 18 year old whipper snapper who didn’t fancy going to university – Max Hastings.

This year the range of inquiry has known no bounds.  We know far more about the contributions of nurses, civilians at home, and soldiers from across the British Empire.

Otto Lais - self portrait  15 years after his time on the Somme

Otto Lais – self portrait 15 years after his time on the Somme

Each country tends to view the conflict through its own prism but much wider understanding has been opened up by collaborations like Europeana 1914-1918 and Centenary News offering masses of primary source material from other nations.

Beware – perspectives can change.  For me, this came in a particularly moving account of how the Somme was viewed from the other side where  Otto Lais recalls the piteous slaughter of the advancing Tommies, and how the Germans had to use their own urine when machine gun coolant water ran out.

Another poignant moment was seeing a British Pathé clip (just 40 seconds) showing the expressions of William Angus VC back home in Carluke sharing a smile with James Martin, the man whose life he saved.


So what are the downsides of this Great War fixation? Have other, and just as worthy, areas of study been marginalised or forgotten?  There may be some merit in this argument, although it is founded on the appetite for history being inelastic, which it clearly isn’t.

Is the extra funding this year ephemeral? Yes; museums and libraries still face drastic budget  cuts– witness the petition to save the IWM library. And there is a wider danger of digital becoming a substitute rather than an adjunct of physical collections which are the prime treasures.

Will the public be turned off by Great War overload and then history in general? I don’t detect any signs of that.

It won’t be over by Christmas. We have four more years ahead, like it or not.  But we can at least switch off, a choice not open to any of our forebears 100 years ago.

Here’s how the Armistice was celebrated:




Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,755 other followers

%d bloggers like this: