Skip to content

Life saving archives

September 12, 2016
Godfrey Thomson ©The University of Edinburgh

Godfrey Thomson   ©The University of Edinburgh

We don’t hear much about the capacity of archives to prolong or even save life.

Left gathering decades of dust, we tend to think of them as a health hazard rather than their potential for improving health and wellbeing.

A case in point is the  psychologist Godfrey Thomson. He was lauded in his lifetime for his work in developing intelligence tests.  Thanks to him, Scotland was the first country in the world to test the IQ of every child aged 11 – both in 1932 and then in 1947.

These records are now being used to study what impact intelligence has in later life. It’s brilliant because many of those 11 year olds are still alive and keen to participate in the research.

Thomson’s achievements faded from memory after his death in 1955. He was a modest academic and IQ tests were then still strongly associated with eugenics. The aim was to improve the quality of the genetic stock of nations or races and it attracted support from left-leaning advocates such as birth control pioneer Marie Stopes.

Eugenics in practice led to compulsory sterilisation programmes across the world, and under the Nazis wholesale murder of those deemed to be inferior.

Professor Ian Deary and colleagues working on Thomson’s IQ data remained curious about the man himself. Then a phone call led to Deary to jump on his bike and pedal full pelt across Edinburgh to Thomson’s old house which was being cleared. He rescued Thomson’s papers, letters and photographs and saved them the rubbish dump.

Much of this material is now on display in a new exhibition. It’s a delight. We learn more about Thomson’s  formative years in Newcastle, his PhD (in physics – and the start of his career as a polymath), and subsequent research on statistics and educational psychology.

The idea for tests was to spot bright kids from poorer backgrounds (like his own) so they could be supported.  Thomson’s work framed the development of comprehensive education in Scotland. He believed the same sum should be spent on every child’s education, testing should not just a one-off and kids should be able to move between academic and practical learning – all still relevant today as grammar schools become the focus of debate in England.

A couple of nuggets:

  • Thomson’s practical support for training Polish teachers exiled in Scotland during the war – in the same way the Polish medical school in Edinburgh trained doctors.
  • He also had an early student fan in 1926 who enjoyed his lively and stimulating lectures –in stark contrast to the numbingly-boring rote learning she experienced at Edinburgh University. This was the young Jennie Lee, who later created the Open University.

Thomson’s work reminded me of another innovative use of dusty archives. David Barker’s group at Southampton

Courtesy, University of Southampton

David Barker. Courtesy, University of Southampton

University had to physically delve deep into Lancashire birth records in the 1980s for their work.

They looked at three ostensibly very similar mill towns –Nelson, Colne and Burnley.  They were puzzled that  folk in Nelson seemed to live significantly longer than in the other two where heart disease struck much earlier.

The explanation  was that Nelson was the last of the three to industrialise. So the women who gave birth had newly come in from the countryside and were still in relatively good shape and well nourished compared to those poor souls who had for years enduring the gruelling physical punishment of working in a mill. This and further studies in Hertfordshire where midwives had kept excellent birth records led to the Barker hypothesis – that nutrition of mother and baby at the time of birth was just, if not more important, an indicator for premature disease and early death as other factors such as genetics, smoking, and lifestyle.

The Thomson exhibition runs at Edinburgh University library until October 29. Catch it if you can.  Pen drives available at the launch have some great audio of the man himself giving some of his lectures. You can also catch up on the fascinating project blog.

Health crisis? – let me through, I’m an archivist…….

The benefits of frontier-free science

July 1, 2016
John Crofton3

It’s hard to pin down what we actually lose if the free movement of people and ideas diminishes or dies.

Scotland’s historic close links with Europe help explain its overwhelming vote to stay in the EU.

Free exchange in the fields of medicine and science has brought enormous benefit for ordinary people. Here’s four relatively recent examples. Not that important really – they’ve only saved millions of lives:

Kosterlitz courstesy royal society

Hans Kosterlitz. courtesy The Royal Society

The buzz we get from exercise….is caused by the release of endorphins, the natural opiates produced in the brain which were first identified by Hans Kosterlitz and John Hughes in Aberdeen in 1975.  Kosterlitz had fled Nazi Germany in 1934. The lab team was a sociable bunch – piling into the Kirkgate Bar for a post-work pint on a Friday. Hans used to enjoy a glass of Glenmorangie.  He embarked on this critical work well into his retirement from the chair of pharmacology at Aberdeen.

How cells commit suicide….a process known as apoptosis, now fundamental to research into several diseases, particularly cancer. It was  first described  in 1972 by another Aberdeen team led by Sir Alastair Currie who had brought over John Kerr, a bright researcher from Brisbane, Australia to join him and his colleague Andrew Wyllie.

Curing tuberculosis…. the world’s first 100% cure was introduced in Edinburgh by Dublin-born Sir John Crofton’s group in 1954.  They used all three drugs from the outset and meticulously monitored each patient. The trouble was that nobody initially believed their results.  What saved the day was one of the first ever international trials arranged via colleagues at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Its success in 22 leading European hospitals made the Edinburgh treatment the world’s gold standard for treating TB.

John Crofton3

John Crofton and colleagues. courtesy, Crofton family

Hepatitis B… another of the world’s nastiest diseases. The revolutionary idea of producing a safe, synthetic vaccine through genetic engineering was first hatched over a lakeside lunch in Geneva. So dangerous was the live virus that Sir Ken Murray had to carry out his work in 1978 at the Porton Down germ warfare establishment. Critical to his success were visits to his colleague Charles Weissmann’s lab in Zurich to get a reagent.  The patents from this work generated more than $100 million in royalties.

kenneth murray

Ken Murray

Ken was a Yorkshireman who had started out as a lowly lab technician with Boots. He didn’t want a Rolls Royce so he used the money to set up the Darwin Trust to help young molecular biologists in their careers – particularly postdocs from Eastern Europe.

At the other end of the scale, there are things that Scotland prefers to forget.  Italy’s declaration of war in June 1940 triggered looting and attacks on Italian people in several British cities. The most extensive and vicious episodes were in Edinburgh.

But freedom of movement for people and ideas has also had its uses elsewhere in:

Fighting Nazism

Without Polish pilots, the Battle of Britain may have ended in defeat. The Polish Women’s Army  played a key role in British uniforms – on exercise here polish womenin Gullane.

Polish mathematicians were the first to break the Enigma code.  And Poland established a whole new medical school in Edinburgh, with the support of Edinburgh and Glasgow university colleagues. There are still exchanges today.

Andrew Schally, a young Polish refugee who had fled the Holocaust, completed his high school education in Scotland in 1946. He was a very good footballer and could have made it as a striker for a Scottish or English club. But he had to settle for another career and winning the 1977 Nobel Prize for medicine instead.

Rebuilding hope in a shattered Europe…..

The Edinburgh International Festival was the idea of Austrian refugee Rudolf Bing who, with the support of Edinburgh’s Lord Provost, had the idea of “recreating Salzburg” in the Scottish capital. The Vienna Philharmonic threw audiences into rapture at the first festival. Bing had a proper job as a partner in John Lewis but he too had to settle for another career in opera management, establishing Glyndebourne and rebuilding the New York Met.

Rudolf Bing Smiling W/Hand To Face

Rudolf Bing. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

And finally…… there’s the European anthem, Ode to Joy, a good recourse at times when all the world seems to offer is one streak of constant misery.  The most celebrated line Alle Menschen werden Brüder (All People become Brothers) wasn’t in Schiller’s original poem. He changed it after the publication in 1795 of Burns’ equally celebrated poem which ends with That Man to Man, the world o’er, Shall brothers be for a’ that.

Update:  One of the three Scots-born Nobel science laureates in 2016 is Michael Kosterlitz, son of Hans.

Sister Dora – the first female statue?

April 29, 2016
Sister Dora ©Derek Bennett/ © Copyright Derek Bennett

Sister Dora                                                       ©Derek Bennett

The first public statue for a woman in Britain turns up in an unlikely place.

Walsall is an industrial town in the Black Country north of Birmingham. I have a lot of affection for it – it’s where I did a lot of my growing up and its grammar school taught me how to spell korrectly.

Pride of place in the town centre is a statue of a nurse, Sister Dora. She was born Dorothy Pattison, a clergyman’s daughter  at Hauxwell in North Yorkshire, taking the name Dora when she joined the Anglican order, the Christ Church sisterhood.

She arrived at the cottage hospital in 1865, aged 32, and developed an exceptionally close bond with the Walsall people. Her nursing and medical skills, self-sacrifice, and personal devotion to the welfare of her patients became a legend. She was there for everyone and everything –  working alone in smallpox epidemic, horrific factory accidents and a pit disaster at Pelsall.

Her life was cut short by breast cancer which she kept quiet about. She died on Christmas Eve, 1878, six months after the opening of the new hospital she had campaigned for.

Sister Dora

Dora was also remembered in a series of postcards

The whole town turned out for her funeral – her coffin was carried by railway workers.

The statue by Frances John Williamson was unveiled in  October 1886. It seems was the first statue in the UK for a non-royal female and may be the world’s first statue for a nurse.  If you know of any other contenders, please let me know via Twitter or the comments section below.

America’s first statue for a woman appears to have been in 1874 for Hannah Dustin in New Hampshire, famed for her escape from native Americans.  But she’s a bit dodgy – having slaughtered  several of her captors (men, women and children) in the process of escaping, and later collecting a bounty for their scalps.

Dora had wanted to joint Florence Nightingale in the Crimea but this was vetoed by her family. AG Walker’s statue of Florence Nightingale in London’s Pall Mall came much later.

Dora’s legacy went well beyond a statue. It included a fund for sending convalescents to the seaside (1880), a stained-glass window in St Matthew’s, the parish church which overlooks Walsall. And at least two railway locomotives.  What makes her truly remarkable is her power to inspire devotion in successive generations – in 2014 new awards in her honour were inaugurated to inspire the next generation of local student nurses.

Would she have wanted all this stuff? Probably not. But it does raise the broader question of how to commemorate a life. Another lump of stone – same as all the men have?

District nurse Elizabeth McPhee 1926

The Clan Macrae Society thought differently after World War One  providing a district nurse in the parishes of Kintail and Glenshiel  rather than “wasting money on bricks and mortar.”  By 1926 nurse Elizabeth McPhee (left) fulfilled this role – complete with BSA motorcycle.

The Scottish Women’s Hospitals also took a different view about their founder, Elsie Inglis. The Edinburgh hospital they built no longer exists.

The digital era offers splendid new ways of capturing memory beyond than stone age statues in websites like Alan Cumming’s for the SWH or in sound like Georg Traska’s audio history of Vienna.

Meanwhile, full marks to Walsall.  It has blazed a distaff trail which other towns and cities, who think themselves much grander, are now seeking to follow more than a century later

More information:

There is a fine DNB piece on Sister Dora by Susan McGann, historian of the Royal College of Nursing and its former archivist. And a great wee YouTube short here:


Viva Aviva Archiva

April 1, 2016


Blimey - all of this can go wrong. All phots courtesy of Aviva Archive

Blimey – all of this can go wrong. All photos courtesy of Aviva Archive

The history of insurance may seem an ideal cure for insomnia – but not in the hands of enterprising archivists.

Aviva has recently launched its new archive website and it’s a real treat – a very good example of what digital history can achieve  – appealing to visitors who just want to dip their toe in the water, those  in search of a quick paddle and others those diving in with a deeper scholarly interest.

  • At the pub quiz end you can find out what Dan Archer, LS Lowry, Jayne Torvill and acid bath murderer John Haigh had in common
  • Local historians can see the role played offices in their towns across Britain and Ireland in a lively series of posts following the Olympic flame
  • Or look at Sir Walter Scott’s original life assurance policy and manuscript endorsements following his financial collapse.

scott avivaThe site is well designed, and navigation is easy with a grepassengersat interactive timeline. Blog posts by chief archivist Anna Stone are witty and engaging and make full use of brilliant illustrations. as you can see here. It is meticu
lously documented and really welcoming although there may be scope for direct archive handle on Twitter.

They all date back to 1696 the Hand-in-Hand established at Tom’s Coffee House in London’s St Martin’s Lane. In my view it ranks alongside Carlsberg and Robert Bosch among the best corporate history sites in Europe.

The web remains the way to go for corporate history but that doesn’t mean the traditional book is finished. Obituaries for the eminent historian Lord Briggs last month also recalled his venture into this field with a commemorative printed history to mark the centenary of Marks and Spencer in 1993. All staff received a copy.San Francisco c1910

A good recent example is whisky writer Charlie Maclean’s sumptuous volume Famous for a Reason – the story of the Famous grouse 002Grouse  (Birlinn,2015).  It is magnificently written and illustrated. But you’ll need a strong shelf – it weighs more than 3 kilos.

The wee low flyer blend was created in Perth  by Matthew Gloag in 1896. Curiously, another whisky firm was also experimenting with new media even at that time. Thomas Edison shot a cinema advert for Dewar’s in 1897.

It scores nul points on artistic merit – just a few blokes pratting around in pretend kilts but worth a watch anyway because it is the oldest surviving, if not the first ever, movie commercial.



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

%d bloggers like this: