Archives and Outings

Each of my weeks here has been different – some heavily library-based, others spent more in archives, or doing oral history interviews. One of the things I love most about my job is this variety, and of course the contact with people – students, academics, and an important group – archivists – who hold the key (literally) to the materials I need for my research.

Work-life balance is important too. It is easy on research trips to get completely overwhelmed by the project. I am fortunate that J joined me in May, taking an unpaid sabbatical from the Royal Liverpool University Hospital to spend time observing pathologists at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and to do a head and neck pathology training course. Now he’s free to go to the baseball and distract me with ideas for road trips (we’ve had a great long weekend in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, which included stopping for coffee at THE Bretton Woods).

Bretton Woods New Hampshire

Bretton Woods New Hampshire

But J’s also brilliant at spotting things I would normally miss on the music scene. Last Thursday we’d planned to go to the Boston Symphony, but that morning he heard that Pixies would be playing an impromptu gig for 300 people to mark the closing of the legendary TT at the Bears club. It was an amazing gig in a wonderful venue. Music often features in my teaching. ‘Fever’ works well for the Rise and Fall of Infectious Diseases lecture for the first year medics (and HIST 239): whether I choose the Elvis or The Cramps version depends on how I feel on the day. ‘St James’ Infirmary Blues’ (White Stripes) livens up the Uses and Abuses of the Human Cadaver lecture, or ‘End Credits’ (Chase and Status) – nice link to William Harvey’s theory on the circulation of blood.

But back to the work…last week I had some fascinating meetings, including Richard Zeckhauser, the chap who coined the term QALY (quality-adjusted life year) in 1976, and Nancy Krieger, a social epidemiologist and historian whose work I have admired for many years. One of the main reasons for being here in the US for three months is to work in archives relating to the development of twentieth century health services, and last week I spent time planning my next set of visits. Records and papers held in archives are unique and despite some digitisation projects, scholars usually have to travel to the sites where they are held: they cannot be ordered on inter-library loan. Luckily digital cameras can now be used in archives (it used to be just pencils and paper) – and my working strategy is to photograph large quantities of papers and then read them back at my desk.

Milton Roemer's papers in the Yale archives

Milton Roemer’s papers in the Yale archives

When I wrote the history of the role of the Chief Medical Officer with Sir Liam Donaldson I spent a lot of time working in the National Archives at Kew in London, following the 18 CMOs who have held the post (since Sir John Simon was appointed in 1855) through the official papers. My next project focused on Brian Abel-Smith (1926-1996). He was one of the first expert advisers – in the UK and to the WHO and more than 30 developing countries – on health and social welfare policy.

All historians (I hope it’s not just me) get excited on archive visits, when opening a new box of papers. Some of the cataloguing is now amazingly detailed (thanks in part to expert training schemes such as the Masters in Archives and Records Management course taught at Liverpool) and the box contents match the finding aids. However with very large archives, especially of personal papers, the outline information can be brief: ‘Correspondence A-C’, for example. One has to request boxes in the hope that some of the content will be relevant. I think historians (or maybe it really is just me) are at heart nosey people. We can overcome any initial queasiness about looking at personal papers in the pursuit of developing more robust histories. OK, most of these people have chosen to deposit their papers in archives; they may even have ‘cleaned’ them to remove anything they would not want made public. Other sets of papers, such as those donated by relatives, may contain material that has the potential to reveal other people’s personal lives. Medical records containing patient information are automatically closed to public access for 100 years; general correspondence files rarely have such controls. There are ethical issues around historical research, just as there are for medical research.

Brian Abel-Smith deposited 183 boxes of his personal and professional papers at the London School of Economics shortly before he died. When I was invited to write his biography I initially refused, on the grounds that I am a historian, not a biographer. But I agreed to go and do a sample of the archive boxes, and it was the amazing diversity and quality of the papers that convinced me I could write a different, individual perspective on the development of health and social welfare in the second half of the twentieth century – and a global one too, given Abel-Smith’s enormous range of activities. What I had not initially, naively, expected was to have to analyse his personal life, and how his homosexuality shaped his career choices. He was a very private person throughout his working life, choosing only to publicly acknowledge John Sarbutt, his partner of over 30 years, at his retirement party. Yet he chose to leave items in the papers he deposited at the LSE archives that can only be interpreted, I think, as his wish to show the future historian/biographer aspects of his life that he could not reveal while alive. I had to check carefully that I did not unwittingly ‘out’ anyone by the way in which I wrote about them in Brian’s biography.

Brian Abel-Smith and his dog Nicky

Brian Abel-Smith and his dog Nicky

Boston Pride

I thought of Brian and John last Saturday, when J and I watched the Boston Pride parade pass the apartment – many of the marchers had their dogs with them, some in fabulous decorations. It took nearly two hours for all the marching bands, floats, and people to pass along the route. I wondered if Brian would have felt comfortable participating if he were alive now, with his dog Nicky.


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